How to be old and happy in Denmark


My New Old Self is taking an occasional look at the wide world through the lens of aging. The idea is to check out what’s it like getting old in various places around the globe.

This is a quick look at Denmark. Without this Scandinavian country of only 5.6-million people, there would be a lot less containers, windmills and beer.

Ship laden with containers passes wind turbines at sea

Ship laden with containers passes wind turbines at sea

Denmark boasts the world’s largest shipping container company. The Danes have installed more than 90 percent of offshore wind turbines. And all that sea and wind has bred a thirst for beer, with Copenhagen home to the world’s 5th largest brewer.

If your hearing worsens as you age, it may well be Denmark you’ll turn to. This little kingdom makes more than half the world’s hearing aids. Danish manufacturers aim to entrench their position even further with a plan to de-stigmatise these electronic acoustic devices by collaborating with mobile phone manufacturers.

The World Health Organisation estimates there are 360-million people — more than 5% of the world’s population — with a disabling loss of hearing, yet current hearing aid production meets less than 10% of global need. Berenberg Bank estimates only one in four who suffer from hearing loss in the US use them. That might in part be down to stigma, part to cost.

– WHO media centre

No prizes for guessing who Danish hearing aid makers are targeting. Aside from the 5% of the hearing-impaired of any age, they hope to appeal to Baby Boomers who are loath to admitting age-related disabilities. Thus hearing aids will be rebranded as “lifestyle products”. You can look like you’re checking your phone messages when you’re actually pumping up the volume to hear a conversation or a movie.

types of hearing aids

New digital hearing aids linked to cellphones linked to mobile phones will be an improvement on these models.

The Danes call Boomers “Great Vintages” (store årgange). This boozy reference is no coincidence.

“We drink as frequently as southern Europeans, and we drink as wildly as the Vikings.” So said Denmark’s Minister for Health in 2010 about alcohol consumption in the country. It was true then and it still is: alcohol consumption in Denmark is among the highest in Europe, while the average life span of its citizens – 78.4 years – is among the lowest.

official website of Denmark, June 2012

Younger Danes have a less flattering term for their elders: the Grasshopper Generation. The expression was coined by wind turbine executive and social commentator Morten Albaek, co-author (with Rasmus Hylleberg) of the Danish bestseller Generation Fucked Up. Albaek likened boomers to locusts gobbling up everything in their path, leaving nothing behind.

“Old Danes are the richest,” young Danes will tell you. “They have eaten and drunk well.”

Denmark food and drink

The kind of food and drink that older Danes have enjoyed

Danish newspaper columnist Tom Jensen likened the Grasshopper Generation to “beasts who mortgaged everything and left the bill for their children”. (The term was also popularized by New York Times columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman, who credited it to US novelist and radio host Kurt Andersen.)

Another Danish inter-generational term is the Curling Parents, from Danish psychologist Bent Hougaard’s book Curling Parents and Service Children.

For the uninitiated, this sport popular in icy countries may seem weird or boring but to its fans curling is “chess on ice”. The game gets the international limelight only once every four years at the Winter Olympics. Denmark’s curling teams, both male and female, usually feature.

Women’s curling world championships in Denmark, 2011

For an outsider, an intriguing part of curling is the players’ frantic sweeping of the ice with brushes, smoothing the way for the sliding stone.

If you’ve watched curling on television, you’ve likely noticed the aggressive, intense sweeping that is done on many shots. Sweeping the ice warms it, which allows the rock to travel further (because it doesn’t slow down as quickly) and run straighter than if it were left alone. Two great sweepers may be able to cause a rock to travel 12 feet or more further than it would without sweeping, meaning that excellent sweepers can give their team a large margin of error on their shots.

– “Chess on Ice” by Edward Scimia,

Like Helicopter Parents circling overhead to monitor their children, Denmark’s Curling Parents are forever sweeping clear the path ahead for their kids.

You see them driving their children to school in the car, when most other children walk or bike. The mom will be carrying the child’s bag and lunch box.

– mother and teacher Inge Boudigaard-Nielsen, Hou, Arhus, Denmark

As the adult children of Danish parents grow up and start families, Curling Parents may become Curling Grandparents. Overinvolved in the lives of their children, some even move house to be closer to their kids and their families.

For Danes without the luxury of personal curling services, their way is cleared by the Danish welfare state, which provides social services from child care to elder care. Lately, many young people feel there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark: the old-age dependency ratio. That’s the percentage of dependent people in the working age population.

As in many Western countries, this ratio has been growing as the Grasshopper Generation ages. Danish youth are worried that their taxes will have to support ever-increasing numbers of retiring old people. So when it’s time for them to collect their pensions there won’t be the same level of state funding that their parents and grandparents now enjoy.

This sense of social support is important to Danes. It’s one of the factors that has made them the happiest people in the world, according to the World Happiness Report of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Danish bliss is apparently due in part to their ability to see the bright side of life, even through the dreary darkness of their long, cold winters. They have cultivated a concept called hygge, a hard-to-translate Danish word that evokes a simple feeling of coziness. Asked to describe a hygge-filled moment, one Dane waxed lyrical about watching TV with his girlfriend while snuggling under a duvet eating chocolates.

Under-duvet TV viewing with chocolates is certainly an activity you can carry on doing well into old age. Perhaps while watching a bit of Nordic Noir, the internationally popular made-in-Denmark genre of TV drama. The latest Danish series, The Legacy, is on a topic of special interest to older people: a family fighting over a will.

The Legacy Danish TV series

Cast of new Danish TV drama series The Legacy

An eccentric baby boomer artist, her four grown children, a country manor, and a will favoring the daughter given up for adoption, that’s the background for Arvingerne, translated as The Legacy… Denmark’s largest legal chain, Advodan, says online inquiries about inheritance issues are up by 143 percent… The Legacy symbolizes a new chapter in the unfolding story of the baby boom generation… The Legacy sales success is largely based on the stellar reputations of earlier Danish series like Borgen and The Killing, but the corporation’s head of drama, Piv Bernth says this program was meant to be a change of direction and even she has been surprised by its reception.

Sidsel Overgaard in Billund, Denmark on US National Public Radio

So let’s get happy Danish style and watch the boomers vs their kids on TV. Pass the chocolates and quit hogging the duvet!






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