Petra Ulmanen is working on a doctoral thesis at Stockholm University’s Department of Social Work
Petra Ulmanen is working on a doctoral thesis on the relationship between informal care for the elderly and gainful employment at Stockholm University’s Department of Social Work

For decades Sweden’s welfare system has been heralded as a model to aspire to. In recent years, however, cuts and shifts in government policy have meant changes. To get some critical currency on what’s happening, researchers at Stockholm University’s Department of Social Work are examining the changing nature of Sweden’s famous welfare system.

“I’m particularly interested in what’s happening in terms of care for the elderly,” says Petra Ulmanen, who is working on a doctoral thesis on the relationship between informal care for the elderly and gainful employment.

Ulmanen’s project is part of a leading research initiative at the Department of Social Work studying Nordic care for the elderly, led by Professor Marta Szebehely.

“Between the 1950s and 1980s government policy rarely mentioned informal care,” says Ulmanen. “Nowadays, as public elderly care services  have been downsized, with fewer elderly people receiving home help, it’s a different matter.”

Ulmanen, a former journalist and editor, is working with quantitative data collected by the Swedish National Institute of Public to shed some light on the changing nature of informal care for the elderly, focusing in particular on questions of gender, social class and ethnicity.

“The relationship between care for the elderly and gender equality is a significant issue,” says Ulmanen. “Gender discussions have tended to focus on child-care, but there are gender issues related to the care of the elderly that require investigation.”

“Looking at the data,” explains Ulmanen, “we can see that 90% of the people employed to care for the elderly are women. 70% of those giving informal care to the elderly are also women. It’s important to understand the hidden story behind this data.”

One issue that has become apparent is that elderly men are more open to  informal care, whereas women are keen for public health care.

“This is largely because men are cared for by their spouses,” explains Ulmanen. “Elderly women, however, who tend to outlive their spouses are then often cared for by their daughters.”

 “It’s important to understand the practical implications of changes in social policy. As governments have made cutbacks the burden of care seems to have shifted away from the public care system to informal care when it comes to the elderly. I’m interested in uncovering what effects government policy has had on the lives of the elderly and the sons and daughters involved in caring for the elderly.”

Sara Erlandsson, like colleague Petra Ulmanen, is also attached to the Department of Social Work’s research on social care. Erlandsson’s work has a political focus, examining the implicit and partly implicit assumptions and motivations that lie behind political decisions that effect the kind of care elderly Swedes receive.

Erlandsson’s research involves comparing the elderly to another group in society that requires care: people with disabilities.

Erlandsson’s initial research examines how government bills –the National Action Plan for Policy of the Elderly and the National Action Plan for Disability Policy – define these groups, detail their needs and specify what care they are entitled to. By looking at political documents Erlandsson is attempting to clarify the thinking behind major political decisions effecting the elderly.

"A good example of the difference between these groups," says Erlandsson, "is, say, how people with certain disabilities are entitled to personal assistance but not if the disability occurs after the age of sixty-five. Disabilities that occur after sixty-five are seen as part of natural ageing. I’m interested in what there is in Swedish society to allow this distinction to exist. How do we really see the elderly?”

Both dissertations are expected to be completed by 2010/2011.

Text and interview: Jon Buscall