Ways of Seeing: Someday, Vermont may act more Swedish

This month’s column is a live dispatch from the vast archipelago that lies east of Stockholm. In particular, I am writing from the northernmost island, Arlhoma, where travel is by boat, foot or bicycle. What brought me to Stockholm was an opportunity to visit my old friend, Annica, who lived with my family as an exchange student and whom I haven’t seen in 32 years.
We have come to Arlhoma for Midsummer, a traditional solstice celebration, the eager anticipation of which any Vermonter would understand! Children and adults alike wear flowers in their hair, dance around a beautifully decorated Midsummer-pole and sing folk songs about how silly frogs look because they have neither ears nor tails.
Being never not a researcher, I arrived in Sweden armed with a notebook and many questions: “Is it really true that university education is free for every student?” “Is it actually the case that care for the elderly is supported by the government, and not dependent on the good fortune (or lack thereof) of individual families?” “Is healthcare free for everyone?”
I was already well aware of the differences between the social systems of Scandinavia and the United States, but I wanted to hear about lived experience. Over seven different varieties of pickled herring and a couple of shots of vodka, seven friends of a certain age (mine) talked to me about their lives. Caring for aging parents was high on the list of topics and both Johan and Catharina shared stories about how their parents (one in an assisted living community and the other at home) were able to live very well, even while facing the respective challenges of Parkinson’s disease and losing one’s spouse.
Johan’s mother lives in a community where the residents are called “guests,” not “patients,” and they are treated as such, with sit-down meals and unflagging attention to both medical needs and the tasks of daily living. The cost to the family including any and all medications? A cost-of-living deduction from her government-provided pension.
Catharina spoke with great feeling about the relief she felt when her father had to start managing alone. “I didn’t quite realize how much help we would get.” she told me. “Helpers will be there many times a day, doing the cooking, the shopping, the cleaning and providing meals.” The cost to the family inclusive of food, healthcare and medication? Again, a moderate portion of the government-guaranteed pension.
But what I also heard, by way of absence, was relief from the high emotional costs of caring for aging parents that my American friends know too well: worrying about how to make it work and wondering whether you should do everything yourself because then care is trustworthy and “free.”
Education was discussed with less intensity, perhaps because these 50-somethings already had experienced what not to worry about: Tuition for higher education is free. Maternity leave? The state guarantees 18 months at roughly 80 percent of your salary; fathers are required to take at least three of those months. For the cost of about $200 a month, childcare is provided until the children start school.
Finally, Swedes believe that there is more to life than work. Everyone I met at the Midsummer table was a hard-working professional, but each enjoyed a guaranteed 37-hour workweek and at least five weeks of paid vacation a year.
Naturally, I asked about taxes. Income tax averages at 40 percent with variation up and down according to income. Sales tax is also high. Nevertheless, no one at the table was willing to argue for another system. The collective perspective seemed to be “we wince at the taxes, but we believe in supporting the greater good.”
Of course, the Swedish social system is more complex than I am describing here and no system is perfect. But my new friends shook their heads when I described what we can and can’t rely on here at home. I then hastened to add with some pride, that Vermont was becoming perhaps the most “Swedish” state of all in terms of emerging initiatives in healthcare and environmental policy.
And, then, of course, we too eagerly anticipate the solstice. We love our wildflowers. And we celebrate when our seemingly earless and tailless spring peepers finally show up to sing us to sleep.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is senior lecturer in environmental studies at Middlebury College and a “boutique shepherd” in Monkton.

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