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Sweden best place in the world to grow old: study

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10:00 CEST+02:00
The one in four Swedes who are older than 60 can rest assured they are well-provided for, according to a new study that ranks Sweden as the best country to grow old in, but women and immigrants still lag behind.

In a summary of why Sweden came out swinging at the top of the Global AgeWatch Index, the organization noted that the country in 1903 introduced the world's first obligatory pension-savings scheme, managed by the state.

"The 100 year-celebration underlines that many years of development of social welfare is behind Sweden's ranking on the Index," NGO HelpAge International, which published the study on Tuesday, said in a statement.

They also noted, however, that there were still concerns on older Swedes' radar.

"Pensioners' organizations are concerned that the economic gap between pensioners and wage-earners is increasing. They strongly oppose the widening of this gap due to a tax system that puts higher taxes on income from pensions than on corresponding income from salaries."

Sweden's Nordic neighbour Norway came in second in the ranking, while Germany placed third.

The researchers also underscored that aggregated national data do not take into account economic, gender, social and other inequalities in any of the 91 societies that were included in the overview.

Sweden's Christian Democrat party, a government coalition partner, has long fought for lower taxes on pensions, especially as low pensions currently effect women who stayed at home with their children the most.

"Certain pensioners live so close to the breadline that we need to ensure their quality of life is improved, not just in terms of gross income, but a real improvement," Christian Democrat MP Lars Gustafsson told The Local on Tuesday.

"It is often women who worked at home who are the worst affected, which is our big worry."

Of the 2.4 million Swedes (24 percent of the population) who have reached their 60th birthday, some 400,000 pensioners receive only the state-guaranteed pensions - a minimum that many pensioners find covers the bills but not much else.

In July, an 85-year-old Swedish woman was apprehended shoplifting salmon, mince, cheese, ham, bread, and sausages - because her daughter was coming for dinner and the pensioner's income didn't allow for anything else but basic food.

Gustafsson's value-conservative party, known for fighting for pensioner well-being in budget talks with its three centre-right coalition partners, wants parents to be able to chose if one stays at home with their children. However, ideally, families in Sweden should share the working partner's pension points between them if one stays at home. The Christian Democrats hope to make such a point-share scheme obligatory and may push for a policy reform if the government coalition stays in power after 2014's general elections, Gustafsson said.

"You can split the premium pension points (an additional 2.5 percent of a person's income set aside) at present, but you have to apply for it and it costs money," Gustafsson explained, adding it would not apply to income-based pensions. "In a new system, you'd instead have to actively opt out."

The Local reported last year that foreign-born Swedes who move here after their 35th birthday risk lagging behind socio-economically once they retire. "Because foreign-born persons have lower pensions, they are in need of housing support for pensioners and maintenance support for the elderly," the Statistics Sweden (Statistiska centralbyrån) report authors noted in December of last year.

Anglo-Swedish pensioner Christine McNab, who has lived in Sweden since the 1970s and recently turned 65, explained that reforms to the pension system make it harder for immigrants to earn a full pension.

"If you move here as an adult in your thirties, even if you start working full-time quite quickly, you'll never end up with enough for a full pension," she told The Local.

While years of service abroad for the United Nations have ensured McNab "isn't suffering" as she enters retirement, she warned that Sweden may be facing an "immigrant divide" among its growing population of pensioners.

"Older immigrants simply can't accrue enough points," she said.

Lars Gustafsson said that the Christian Democrats had not yet looked at foreign-born Swedes' situation because the affected persons had highly diverse income patterns, making it a "discrepant group", but said he welcomed a more thorough report into their well-being.

"Pensioner generation dilemmas will change over the next 20 years," he added.

Ann Törnkvist

Follow Ann on Twitter here

Additional reporting by David Landes

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