Trip to Finland helps students shed stereotypical views on aging

June 25, 2014

A population bustling with physical activity is a good indicator of a long life expectancy.

In Finland, where average life expectancy is almost two years longer than the average life expectancy in the United States, most people walk or bike, both in small towns and in large cities. Access to high quality health care is another indicator of a longer life expectancy.

Indiana State University students traveled to the country on a two-week study abroad trip to observe firsthand the impact of the health care differences between Finland and the United States. Tina Kruger, assistant professor of applied health sciences, put together a group of Indiana State students and one alumnus, along with a professor and graduate student in gerontology at Eastern Illinois University.

With Finland having one of the most advanced elder care systems in the world, Kruger was eager to educate students on ways to improve the elder care system in the U.S.

"I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be nice if we could go abroad and look at what other countries do well and try to bring some of that back to the U.S.'," Kruger said. "[Providing care to older adults] is a big challenge that we're facing as our population ages."

Before leaving the country, Kruger developed an experience for her students to visit different health care facilities in the Terre Haute area in order to compare to the local facilities to those observed in Finland. Students also read scholarly articles comprised of aging statistics and facts for both the United States and Finland.

Kruger partnered with Tuula Hämäläinen, coordinator of international affairs at Saimaa University of Applied Sciences, who helped schedule visits to the different facilities in Laapeenranta, a city comparable in size to Terre Haute. One of the immediate differences the group observed was the ease of physical movement throughout the densely packed environment.

"The way people navigate, just the physical space there, is just immediately apparent how very different it is," Kruger said. "Public transportation is excellent, and using personal power to get there, either walking or biking, was a lot more common."

Sarah Gilland, a senior in human development and family studies, was among many of the Indiana State students who felt enlightened during the trip.

"We saw so many healthy, independent older adults in Finland, who would ride around town on their bikes or on their scooters," she said. "It was just an excellent reminder that aging does not have to be a negative experience. By making healthy decisions throughout your life, you can continue to have a healthy, happy, independent lifestyle when you are older."

Although obesity is less common among the people of Finland (only 16.6 percent of the Finnish population is obese, compared to 34.9 percent of the U.S. population), a few traits they share with the U.S. are heart disease, the rise of diabetes and depression.

"Depression is an issue for older adults there like it is here," Kruger said. "People were very lonely and the same thing happens here. For the people in Finland, it seemed like it wasn't until maybe (they) became homebound and weren't able to get out in society as much."

Another potential factor leading to depression is the limited amount of sunlight the country receives during the winter.

"Everyone acknowledged that winter there is very hard," Kruger said. "The sun doesn't rise until 10:30 in the morning and sets again by 3:30 in the afternoon, so they only have five hours of daylight and a lot of that is more kind of dusk."

On the other hand, the summer hours of sunlight are much longer, beginning at 3:30 a.m. and lasting until 10:30 p.m. "I think in the summer people are pretty happy, but the winter is really hard on people especially for older adults who are less mobile," Kruger said.

Another difference the students noticed is the team-based collaborative care that professionals use when determining a rehabilitation plan to better suit a client's needs, whereas collaborative work focused on rehabilitation doesn't seem to be as common in the States.

"One example of [Finland's advanced elder care system] is that no matter what the health care setting (nursing home, assisted living, etc.), they are always working for rehabilitation and greater independence," Gilland said. "It's not like they go to a nursing home and say, ‘This is it, we'll just play Bingo all day.' Instead, they are constantly working to improve the quality of life for the older adults they serve. I really love that and hope to see that idea implemented more in the U.S."

Many of the students who went on the trip were nervous to venture away from their families and out of the country, but they all found the experience rewarding.

"[After reading the students reflection papers], they all talked about how much this experience has opened their eyes to the experience of aging," Kruger said. "When I teach my classes, I really want students not to have the negative perceptions of aging that are so pervasive in our society...One of the [Finnish care providers] we interviewed said, ‘aging isn't a disease,' and everybody --, all the students, all the faculty, all the guests -- everybody on the trip commented after that, ‘What a compelling statement that was that she had made.'"

The trip seems to have made other lasting impressions on the participants. For example, Gilland is now considering changing her career path.

"I used to be so certain that I wanted to work with children," she said, "but now I think that I am going to pursue a career in gerontology, the study of aging. I think the main inspiration for my change in career aspirations is that I was so inspired by the Finnish long-term care and I want to implement their ideas here in the U.S. to improve quality of life for older adults."

Although this trip is one of the many study abroad experiences Indiana State has to offer students, the knowledge, experience and independence remains the same.

"I think when [students] share [their experience with their peers] and when I share that information with other students, it just helps us, as a university, accomplish our mission of getting students to have these international experiences," Kruger said, "that really do broaden their perspectives and open their minds and help them grow as individuals (and) grow as global citizens."

Contact: Tina Kruger, assistant professor of applied health sciences, Indiana State University, 812-237-8483 or tina.kruger@indstate.edu

Writer: Sadie All, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773 or sall@sycamores.indstate.edu

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/i-GNQGMPx/0/S/i-GNQGMPx-S.jpg - Indiana State students arrive in Lappeenranta, Finland after 36 hours of traveling in May, where the students did a two-week study abroad trip to observe firsthand the impact of the health care differences between Finland and the U.S.

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/i-jjVQTvk/0/L/i-jjVQTvk-L.jpg - A Finnish woman rides a bicycle along the streets of Finland May 20. Indiana State University students who traveled to Finland were struck by how active the Scandinavian nation’s older residents are. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Events/Events-by-Year/2014/Finland/i-w9WWvNB/0/L/May%2020%2C%202014%20Finland%209105--L.jpg - Student Patrick Newsham holds up a leek at a Finland grocery store. To help keep costs down, they purchased most of their food from the grocery store and hosted family-style dinners.  The group referred to itself as,“Finnish family,” and ate family dinner together in the flat the students shared at the hotel in Lappeenranta almost every evening.

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Events/Events-by-Year/2014/Finland/i-7tPHF3K/0/L/May%2017%2C%202014%20Finland%208245-L.jpg - Indiana State students participate in a group hike outside of Lappeenranta with a few Finnish friends they made on their trip to Finland in May.

Story Highlights

Indiana State University students traveled to the country on a two-week study abroad trip to observe firsthand the impact of the health care differences between Finland and the United States.

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