“It is valuable for us to receive your thoughts, ideas and complaints – positive as well as negative – it gives us a chance to improve our work”. Statements such as this are used by many Swedish municipalities. In fact, similar rhetoric is used in several EU countries to encourage the elderly to make their voices heard. The “European Social Network” emphasizes that social services wish to listen to the service users and support the personal fulfilment of the elderly. Yet, Tove Persson’s studies expose serious flaws in the practice of listening – at least in Sweden. Officially, complaints are “valuable tools for quality improvements”, but two recent studies show that complaints by elderly citizens are often trivialized or played-down by the authorities responsible and by staff involved in elderly care.
Persson has studied 100 social service directors (responsible for elderly care) and found that the organization of complaints lodged by the elderly is a bit of a haphazard affair in Sweden. Many municipalities, for instance, did not provide the elderly with information about how to complain, and in some municipalities the elderly had to submit their complaints via the Internet.
Even though the service directors said they received too few complaints from the elderly, quite paradoxically, they often played down the importance of the few complaints they did receive by describing these as trivial: “It is often trivialities they complain about. You know, if some of the home help staff forget a visit and things like that.” Similar rhetoric was exposed in Persson’s second study where nursing home staff described residents’ complaints about food, bedtimes and loneliness as petty details. By describing nearly all kinds of complaints as unimportant, the staff could justify their negligence regarding these complaints. Despite official ambition to listen to the elderly, it still seems to be difficult for the elderly to make their voices heard.