Gayle Reeves' Blog

Elder Law in Iceland

Gayle A. Reeves - Monday, December 01, 2014


            Because I am keenly interested in whether other countries are dealing with the same issues as the United States when it comes to our senior population, I recently participated in an elder law delegation to Iceland.  This trip gave me an overall perspective of the issues and solutions as perceived by the local and federal governments, by the people working directly with the senior population, and, most importantly, from the family’s directly dealing with the issues of an aging parent.

            Iceland has a population of about 328,000.  Only about 11% of the population in Iceland is 67 years of age or older, which is the legal old age at which a person is entitled to benefits.  Iceland has a statutory social insurance system and a statutory pension fund system.  The pension fund system is for those in the labour market and is based upon what a person has paid into the system (similar to a 401k).  The social insurance fund is supported by taxes and a person is entitled to receive it if their pension fund payment is low (similar to our Social Security).  More people receive payments from the pension fund than from the social insurance fund.

            As in the United States, there is a struggle between the state and the municipalities as to which entity is responsible for providing services to the seniors and for the funding for those services.  The Welfare Service in Reykjavik is working towards Integrated Home Care which would coordinate the services between nursing and social services.  The goal is to keep seniors in their homes with fewer hospital visits.

            We visited a Community Center for Adults, a Residential Living Center for the Elderly, and a Nursing Home.  Each Community Center is located in a neighborhood so that residents may easily access it.  It provides group activities, social support, and public information.  Its goal is to prevent and minimize social isolation.  The Residential Living Center is very similar to our assisted living communities.  It has individual rooms and provides seniors with as much or as little help as they need.  The Isfold Nursing home was truly something to see.  It has very large single rooms.  Residents are encouraged to be as independent as possible despite any physical or cognitive limitations.  In each of the facilities the walls are brightly painted with beautiful artwork on the walls.   

            Medical care in Iceland is very comparable to that in the United States, except that Iceland has socialized medicine.  Everyone receives medical care in Iceland.  However, Iceland struggles to train and keep good doctors.  Doctors can earn more money in Sweden and Norway, so it is difficult to retain the doctors in Iceland.  In fact, during my stay the doctors were on strike for more money-something unheard of in the United States.  The Minister of Health, Sveinn Magnusson, assured us that the strike would be resolved to the Ministry’s and the doctor’s satisfaction.

            Despite the programs and facilities geared towards keeping seniors as independent as possible in their homes, the most fundamental way to care for seniors is by the family.  The most enlightening conversation I had was with our guide.  Sigrour has an 87 year old father whose health is failing.  She has moved into his home to take care of him.  She is currently dealing with the governmental systems to try to get care for her father.  Sigrour tells us that there are children who cannot take care of their parents.  The children take the parent to the hospital and refuse to pick them up.  The hospital must keep the parent until it can find a facility that has room for the parent.  Sigrour also pointed out that not all nursing homes are as nice as Isfold.

              Of interest is that there are no elder law attorneys in Iceland.  While the law school has a few courses that deal with some of the issues facing seniors, it has no specific elder law classes.  Based upon our conversation with the Dean of the Law School at the University of Iceland, Eyvindur G. Gunnarsson, we are hopeful that elder law will become an area of practice in Iceland.

            As you can tell, while Iceland has a much younger population than the United States, it is still dealing with the same issues facing United States seniors.  Icelanders are hoping to have a better system in place for caring for their seniors, but the struggle for funding is one that will not go away.