Hei moi! I hope readers will excuse a slower news week here at ChangingAging.org as your editor is traveling in the exotic and frigid country of Finland. One of the European Union’s smallest countries, Finland has the strongest economy behind only Germany but it also has the most rapidly growing aging population in the EU, making aging one of the most pressing issues in this north Baltic country.
This is my third visit to Finland but the first in winter, a daunting prospect so close to the Arctic circle. However, the steady snowfall, idyllic winter-clad countryside and frequent visits to the sauna – which aptly enough originates in Finland — have made it a pleasant destination.
The Scandanavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden are considered the most progressive in the world in how they care for elders and view aging. The primary reason is a more widespread philosophy that elders should be able to live and age within their communities, so long-term care environments are remarkably inter-generational. These countries also, coincidentally, have strong ties to The Eden Alternative International nonprofit and Dr. Bill Thomas travels and works frequently in Scandanavia.
Interestingly, Finland is not considered a Scandanavian country as its people, language and culture are unique and quite different from its Nordic neighbors, and the reality of aging is quite different here. Neither is Finland aligned culturally or ethnically with its Eastern neighbor Russia or other Eastern Europeans countries (a mistake many Westerners have made much to the Finns’ chagrin).
Finland — or Suomia, as Fins call their country — is remarkably unique with a language unrelated to any other in the world (except very distantly to the equally unique Estonian and Magyar, or Hungarian tongue). I’ve always found Finnish people, who are often stereotyped as taciturn and remote, to be among the most good natured, funny and practical individuals in the planet. Who else in the face of months-long Arctic darkness and blizzard conditions would make a party of chopping holes in the ice to take a dip after roasting in the sauna (I did give it a try, fortified with a few stiff drinks to boot!).
The Finns are remarkable also in their rapid transformation from a rustic farm/forestry-based economy to a mordern industrial economy with the highest per capita income in the EU. They are recognized as having perhaps the highest quality education system in the world, strong upward mobility and a popular national welfare system.
However, given Finland’s relatively small population of 5 million people the coming global age boom threatens to hit them hard. Most at risk are their ability to maintain productivity and to sustain their generous social security and welfare state.
Unfortunately, experts agree that Finland also lags far behind neighboring Sweden and other Nordic countries in addressing both the negative AND positive aspects of an aging society. There is not a strong “culture change” movement to reform the quality of long-term care, compared to much of the rest of northern Europe and the U.S. University of Tampere Prof. Jan Kunz wrote in the Journal of Sociology that Finns must address not only the fiscal challenges of caring for an aging population but also seize the opportunity to find meaning in life for older adults by valuing the strengths of relationships and community, through such activities as volunteering, mentoring and intergenerational interaction.
Finland has many advantages in its high standard of living, heterogenous society and most importantly a strong appreciation for enjoying life. It will be interesting to see how its people handle the challenge and opportunity of growing old.