The Icelandic króna has never been higher; disposable income (from 1995 to 2003) of individuals has doubled; the banks are posting record profits; a new generation of Icelandic billionaires has emerged; Icelanders have never bought as many cars or built as many summer houses; but during these times of economic prosperity, one group is being left out. The group that made the sacrifices that made Iceland what it is today – the elderly.
The elderly have been in the public discussion lately because of interviews on the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service news program Spotlight last week. According to Spotlight, families are increasingly forced to hire care takers into nursing homes to take care of their elderly parents.
Margrét Reynisdóttir told Spotlight interviewer Kristján Kristjánsson, that although her 86 year old mother is in an Alzheimer unit of nursing home Skjól, her family has had, for the last two years, to hire a care taker. The care taker assists their mother with her daily needs including feeding her and taking her to the restroom. Margrét said that although the employees at Skjól are “wonderful”, they are just too few. According to Margrét, there are only two employees to take care of the 12 patients in her mother’s unit. Margrét said that her mother alone needs two people to take her to the restroom. Before retiring, Margrét’s mother worked at a nursing home; “we are talking about a woman who had a blue collar job,” said Margrét. She said her mother now pays many times what she used to earn for the private help. All in all the family buys 270 hours a month of nursing services to help take care of their mother.
In an interview on the same Spotlight program, the chairman of parliament’s Health and Insurance Committee, Progressive Party MP Jónína Bjartmarz, said that it was “educational” to hear this and that it was “good” that people could afford to help their parents by “making up for [the lack of services in public institution]”.
Ögmundur Jónasson, a MP for the Left – Green Party told Spotlight, “If Icelanders can take a decision to build a new Music Hall that will costs billions why do we let people live in sub-human conditions?” Ögmundur said that in Reykjavík alone there are 300 people that are in dire need to be put in a nursing home. He said, that of those 300, 30% never receive the service because they die before being placed in a home. “These are people who do not have time to wait,” said Ögmundur.
Last August, physician Ólafur Örn Arnarson wrote the following in an article titled “For who are the nursing homes?” in Morgunbladid. Ólafur Örn wrote, ” in most cases they [the nursing homes] are for people who have lived in Iceland their entire lives and paid taxes and their dues to the government. These people are in the last phase of their lives, the have a few months or years to live and can no longer live at home. These people have an undisputable right to this service. By making waiting lists for places at nursing homes, the government is betraying these people [the elderly], it unbelievable that the governments of the last decades should behave this way.”
Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson, MP for the Social Democratic MP initiated the discussion in parliament yesterday. He spoke of the conditions in the various nursing homes and the fact that the families are forced to hire care takers for their parents who live there. He asked the minister of health if he had come to terms with a double system in the welfare system where people were forced to pay for care-taking in nursing homes [on top of the nursing home fees].
The minister of health, Jón Kristjánsson (Progressive Party), said “no”.
In the Spotlight interview, Jónína, who has been the chairman of parliament’s Health and Insurance Committee since 2000, said that a report from the Icelandic National Audit Office was about to be published, “and it would, maybe, show in “black and white” what the real situation is.” Jónína told viewers to, “by all means, dig into it”.
According to the report:
- In 2003, people who were in “dire need” to be placed in a nursing home waited on average 86 days for a room.
- There was on average a 213 day wait from when the first assessment was made until when a place at a nursing home was allocated.
- There are not enough places for those over the age of 80; according to government plans, there are nursing home places to accommodate a quarter of that age group.
- Supply of nursing home places varies across Iceland, from 60 to 118 places per one thousand inhabitants. The least supply is in Reykjavík and Reykjanes.
- 50% of nursing home rooms are single occupancy rooms and 29% have a separate bathroom.
- The size of the rooms varies from 8 to 26 square meters.
- The government has not fulfilled minimum obligations of quality and quantity of service and facilities in homes for the elderly and other health care institutions.
In the report, the Icelandic National Audit Office recommends that the Health and Insurance Ministry show more initiative in developing facilities for the elderly; it also says that the regional imbalance in supply of facilities needs to be redressed.