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Iceland The Globe Travel Guide
© David Williams

Retirement, Icelandic style


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The lake of Mývatn with the mountain Bláfell behind. A couple of generations ago much of Iceland`s population lived in farms such as these but every year more and more older people leave the farms to live in the towns, especially Reykjavík.
These racks near the eastern fishing town of Seyðisfjörður carry thousands of stockfish (wind-dried cod). Fishing is the mainstay of the Icelandic economy and its most important export.

Two similar apartment blocks (each with thirty-five flats) had a central communal area and this was shared by the residents of other nearby blocks. A cafeteria, lounge, rooms where people could do handcrafts, a hairdresser, massage room and numerous other facilities were at hand. All of this was finished in typical modern Icelandic style — very comfortable without being fussy or flamboyant (polished wood and light colours are very popular). The buildings are kept wonderfully warm by geothermally-heated hot water so even though Reykjavík is close to the Arctic Circle, no-one need shiver while indoors during the winter months (outdoors is another matter altogether!). Such excellent facilities are quite common in Iceland and are provided free by the local authorities. Care of the elderly is an important issue in the country, especially when the winters are long and dark and many people, especially the elderly, are forced to stay indoors for long periods of time. The elderly (and those preparing for retirement) have a fair amount of political clout and this ensures that politicians are attentive to their needs.

We sat in the cafeteria and chatted over coffee with Peter; the centre has a travel bureau and he was going on one of their day-trips to Greenland that afternoon — Icelanders don`t stay still for long during the summer! Many of the flats` residents went on bus tours and took advantage of the summer`s long hours of daylight to visit the countryside. Bragi was going to the western peninsula of Snæfellsnes in the next few days, on one of his twice-yearly fishing trips.

Both Bragi and his wife are seventy-five years old and live off their state pension and Bragi`s company pension. The retirement age for both sexes is sixty-seven and there has been a state pension since 1947. At present this amounts to a flat rate of IKr11,000 (100IKr = about £1) per month and a variable sum (up to a maximum of IKr20,000 per month) based on income (the lower the income, the higher the pension). The cost of living in Iceland is high, especially since many consumer goods and foods have to be imported, and pensioners often have to rely on savings or staying with relatives in order to maintain a good standard of living.

Although living conditions can be very hard, it is noteworthy that the Icelanders` longevity is second only to Japan, with men living to an average age of seventy-four years and women to eighty-one years of age (1980 figures). Interestingly, the diets of both these countries (and of the Faroes, another country high in the longevity tables) have a very high fish content.

This longevity means that the social services` provisions can be hard pressed to cope with the numbers of people who require assistance. In 1984 some 24,000 people were aged sixty-five years old or over; this was 10% of the population and this number is expected to rise dramatically over the next decade or so. With an economy that is at the mercy of the fluctuations in world fish prices, this is a social and economic problem that the country is having to face up to.

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