By Marja

When I read Marcy’s inspiring assignment for this Newsletter, it was clear to me that I would not write about famous great men or even great women in history, no matter how significant and honorable their achievements are. Yet, nameless, faceless everyday heroes are hard to identify due to their anonymity. Nor did I want to publish an impersonal list of good deeds by unidentified people with whom I have no bond at all. Although I usually discover my approach to a given topic instantly like a thunderbolt, this time I needed several days to think about it.

I wanted to pick up a female who matches the following criteria: 1) She addresses important but “unsexy” issues which are unfashionable and underrated in society or politics. Those openings will bring her neither fame, riches nor a saint’s halo but rather the reputation of a nagging old hag. 2) She keeps on pushing forward those issues tirelessly year after year despite the indifference, disregard or hostility she encounters in her mission. 3) Her message is based on real expertise and hands-on activities rather than on just repeating wishful phrases that anyone can memorize by reading. Hence, the lady should be an independent thinker who is bold, resilient, serious and knowledgeable. The key attributes are justice, integrity and fight to defend the defenseless.

Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä, Champion of Better Elderly Care

My choice was Professor Emerita Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä, M.D. from Finland.  Prof. Kivelä is a pioneering champion of better elderly care who made a long, successful academic career as a professor of medicine with emphasis on gerontology. She led and participated in a number of European and Nordic research projects focusing on senior citizens and dealing with their depression, medication, slip and fall accidents, coronary heart diseases, as well as violence against old people. She was often invited to serve as an expert or an evaluator for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union (EU) along with numerous similar duties in Finland. She was honored with many academic prizes and state awards. She is considered the leading gerontology specialist in Finland.

Although Prof. Kivelä is already retired since she is 73 years old, she is still contributing to the public discussion on the themes that are genuinely close to her heart. Nowadays, Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä is a senior citizen activist who gives interviews and presentations and writes popular articles. She is also a family caregiver of her 85-year-old husband who suffers from memory disorders. She encourages other family caregivers by sharing her own experience.

Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä is definitely NOT a pushy, meretricious populist, although her well-founded, unembellished criticism of the disgraceful state of elderly care in Finland is sharp, harsh and merciless. To cite an example, Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä questions the claim for being a civilized state if we silently approve inferior elderly care in the name of  budget savings. She raised the constant issue, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemics, when some nursing homes for the elderly faced a series of deaths. She asked further whether those nursing homes provided any terminal care.

Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä regards the prevailing trend in elderly care as cruel, unkind and inhuman while economic indicators and bureaucratic rules are dictating the objectives. People are kept alive but there is no time for tenderness and human warmth. According to Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä, the root cause behind bad treatment is the underestimation and disrespect of old people. She would revolutionize the twisted values of our era when old people are treated as mere expenses. The young are supposed to possess the future whereas the old have been deprived of their human value.

Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä maintains that the elderly are sometimes treated worse than pets and domestic animals. In support of her provocative argument, she reminds us how an EU directive (1) orders that cows must be walked out regularly, but there are elderly people who cannot get outdoors for years. The elderly may be over-medicated with psychiatric drugs and can be diagnosed with dementia on false grounds.  Ordinary general practitioners often lack any specialization in elderly care, as the recession of the 1990’s abolished its training.  And the funding for those gerontological classes were never reinstated! Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä demands not only higher knowledge standards for the rank-and-file doctors and health care workers but also a change in general attitudes as well as concrete measures to improve the inadequate quality of the present elderly care.

Anyone who has old, fragile family members that need nursery care or other support will sign Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä’s strict, perplexing statements. However, I could imagine that Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä is a pain in the neck of many politicians and government officials who want to guard the flawless image of the superior welfare state that takes excellent care of all its citizens from cradle to grave. Her heavy accusations, reflecting a conflicting view, introduce a disturbing crack into the untrue idyll. The same holds for greedy and ruthless care business companies that have distinguished themselves in international tax evasion but have no money to hire enough staff.

Portrait S-L Kivelä, Source: Satakunnan Kansa | Fanny Haga | https://www.satakunnankansa.fi/a/b79f846b-33ff-4aaf-9836-7d6cd5508c14

Vappu Taipale and Minna Lindgren, Other Advocates of the Rights of the Elderly

Although the interests of the old and the sick are not exactly a hot priority in Finland, Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä is not the only voice in the dark. Vappu Taipale and Minna Lindgren are other vocal advocates of old people’s rights.

Mrs Vappu Taipale (born in 1940) is likewise a medical doctor but she made her public career mainly in politics (e.g. as a cabinet minister) and afterwards as Director General of the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health. Vappu Taipale and her husband Ilkka (a psychiatrist, a pacifist, a politician and an NGO activist) are personified embodiments of the radicals of the swinging 1960s – stereotypes of the decade in the positive sense. They characterize themselves as incurable idealists and do-gooders in spite of many setbacks and imperfections.

Mrs Minna Lindgren (born in 1963), by contrast, is an apolitical figure, just like Sirkka-Liisa Kivelä. Minna Lindgren is a journalist specialized in classic music, but she also became a popular crime fiction novelist seven years ago when the first novel of her trilogy jumped to the rank 5 on the list of the best-selling books in Finland. Minna Lindgren’s books deal with issues surrounding elderly care as a profit-making business, culminating in the third book with the replacement of all human contact by technology. The author tackles sensitive problems in a lighthearted, entertaining fashion, instead of creating a dystopia.

Minna Lindgren’s cozy novels follow two spirited, vibrant ladies who live in a Helsinki retirement home where they unravel a series of mysteries. These brisk protagonists are over 90 years old and not afraid of death. The English-language rights to the trilogy were bought by Pan Macmillan who renamed them the series “The Lavender Ladies Detective Agency”. The first of the three novels was translated as Death in Twilight Grove.  Here comes a tip to a reading group!

Hand elderly care, Source: Pixabay | Gerd Altman

Dancing Queen, 93 Years Young

Finally, I must mention the incredible Aira Samulin who leads by example: she crushes all possible prejudices concerning old people and shows how senior citizens may live their lives to the fullest. This super positive lady is 93 years old but she is bursting with energy and enthusiasm while she is still dancing and exercising like a girl in her twenties. Her colorful fashion style looks youthful, too. Aira Samulin is a former dance teacher and an entrepreneur who ran a highly successful dance school and a modeling agency in the past. Today, this living legend is an ambassador of the joy of dancing that belongs to everyone irrespective of one’s age or skills.  Although she always appears cheerful, laughing heartily, Aira Samulin has gone through a lot of severe hardships during her life, such as the loss of her father and childhood home in the war, mental disorders of her mother and both children, violent marriage, financial problems, etc.

This recent video from July 2020 proves that age is just a number (view the link below). Aira Samulin performs a Virus Killing Dance. She is first talking in Finnish in the beginning of the video to motivate elderly watchers. If you wish to skip the talk, start at 2 minutes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqFvib5jPCg&t=183s

End note:

1 A directive is a legal act of the European Union which requires member states to achieve a particular result without dictating the means of achieving that result.