Ivar Levaraas is the head of the National Council for Senior Citizens. The following interview was originally conducted in Norwegian and appeared in the magazine Pensjonisten («The Pensioneer») in February 2012.
Text: Jacob Westersund
Working for a better quality of life
Ivar Leveraas wants to make an impact on the society he lives in. And he is not giving up on this, even though he has been retired for a long time. The former party secretary of the Norwegian Labour Party is now head of the National Council for Senior Citizens.
The mission of the National Council for Senior Citizens is to work for “quality of life in the later years”. The head of the Council, Ivar Leveraas, has no clear definition of what constitutes quality of life, but still suggests a recipe for how to improve your quality of life in the later years.
– Look after your health. Use your body and your brain. Take care of family and friends. And perhaps most important of all: try to live a life that matches your dreams and expectations.
But that is sometimes easier said than done, as people with many years behind them know. The National Council for Senior Citizens has a much more concrete task: Leveraas describes it as “an advisory body for public authorities and institutions at the national level”.
A commited contributor
Leveraas has always been an active and committed contributor in various political organizations and movements. He has held masses of representative positions in the Labour Party and the trade union movement, culminating in 11 years as party secretary at the Party headquarters at Youngstorget. He later became a director both of the Norwegian State Housing Bank and the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority.
-In 2006 you were awarded the King’s Medal of Merit in gold. How does it feel to get something like that?
-I think it was a very nice gesture of recognition, naturally. It was especially nice that it was the Ministry of Labour, my employer, that put me forward. I also felt that the award was an acknowledgement of the Labour Inspection Authority itself.
– In the same year, you became head of the National Council for Senior Citizens. What qualities do you need for the job?
– Commitment and an interest in the subject. And you also need the ability to get the Council working well together.
Proud of seniorporten.no
– You yourself are what you define as an “older senior citizen” – you are over 67. Is that a qualification?
– It may be a bonus, but I think it’s going a bit far to call it a qualification.
– What has the National Council for Senior Citizens achieved under your leadership?
– We work in lots of little ways, but I can mention a few things. We are rather proud of the Cultural Walking Stick. I think culture is extremely important to older people’s quality of life. We are also very pleased with the establishment of the website seniorporten.no.. There you can find a lot of material for senior citizens, and from the portal you can also link to a computer course for seniors.
Keen to contribute
– How is life as an older senior citizen, Mr Leveraas?
– It is absolutely excellent. I have reasonably good health and useful things to do day-to-day. As well as being head of the National Council for Senior Citizens, I also have positions in USBL (a housing association) and Seniornett Norge. And when I have some spare time, I often go to my holiday house in Sør-Odal. I have a wife, daughter and grandchildren. I really can’t complain.
– Is life as a senior citizen different from what you imagined when you were younger?
– Yes and no. I would never have imagined my retirement being so full of interesting things to do – being head of the National Council for Senior Citizens, for example.
-What do you value most in life right now?
-That people have a use for me. That people still think I have something to contribute.
Exclusion from the labour market
Like Leveraas, many older people would like to contribute something to society. Many would also like to work for longer than they do, but instead they are excluded from the labour market. The National Council for Senior Citizens wants to counteract this.
-Yes, we think it is beneficial both for the individual and for society if people are allowed to make themselves useful for as long as possible.
-If it is so beneficial, why is the labour market so sceptical towards older employees?
– There’s no easy answer to that, but a lot of employers probably believe they can shape young employees in a way that is best for the business. Maybe some of them think that young employees make for a more flexible organisation. By I think this is short-sighted thinking. My experience is that an organisation works best when it has diversity within it, both in age and gender. It’s also paradoxical that when you take on a young person, there is a relatively good chance that you will lose that person after a while. But most important of all perhaps is all the experience businesses lose when they exclude older employees.
Life course policies
– The National Council for Senior Citizens advocates HR policies which take life stages into account as an effective way of keeping older people in work. What do you mean by this?
– It means that a company’s HR policy should take account of the stage its employees are at in life. Parents with small children are in a different situation from older people, for example.
– You also propose financial incentives for people to work longer.
– Yes, schemes combining work and retirement may be one way. What we definitely want to avoid is the idea that it is more expensive for employers to have older staff.
Need for older politicians
People over 67 are badly under-represented in politics. The National Council for Senior Citizens thinks this is unfortunate.
– Elected bodies like Parliament and the municipal councils should reflect the age profile of the population. I think everyone agrees with that deep down. The problem would be solved if more politicians around 60 simply decided to carry on. When so many choose to step down, it must partly be because we have some popular conception that when you pass your mid-60s you should retire. But we need a change of attitude here. Those who feel they still have something to contribute in politics should go on contributing – whatever their age. That is the best way, both for society and for the individual. Just think what experience of life and society senior citizens have! We automatically expect both sexes to be represented in politics, and I think it is equally natural for all age groups to be represented.
– In the recent election, Balsfjord voted in a proper senior politician: 98-year-old Helge Solvang was elected to the municipal council.
– Well, that says it all. If the commitment is strong enough, there is no age limit for politicians. Let me take this opportunity to wish Solvang every success in the job. May he be an example to others.
The role of councils for the elderly
– What about the municipal councils for the elderly, are they an influential channel?
– Yes, the councils for the elderly are important. That is why the National Council for Senior Citizens wants it to remain compulsory for all municipalities to have such councils. But I think the councils for the elderly could be more effective in their work. One thing is timing – taking action at the right moment, before the crucial budget debate, for example. I also believe the councils for the elderly could be smarter at forging alliances with other groups. Then they could have more impact. Take the lack of snow-clearing in Oslo, for example. That is a problem for old people who are unsteady on their legs. But it is also a problem for a disabled person in a wheelchair or a young mother with a buggy. In other words, measures for older people may often benefit other groups too.
IT – a tool for everyday life
The National Council for Senior Citizens urges that senior citizens who do not have adequate IT skills should be offered training, in libraries or activity centres for the elderly.
– Don’t you think that those who want to use IT will teach themselves anyway? Do we need special courses for senior citizens?
– Yes, definitely. We need to remember that as long as you are at work, your employer is often happy to keep you up-to-date on the computer front. But technology is advancing all the time, and retired people also need to keep up.
-What about you? Are you online, if I can put it that way?
– Yes, I am. I bought a PC as early as 1986, and I was determined to learn all about it. Not long ago, I bought myself an iPad 2, so I’m holding my own on the computer front.
The National Council for Senior Citizens supports the recommendation from the Norwegian Board of Technology to develop a “care package”. This amounts to an extended security alarm function. It includes smart building technology to control things like lights, heating and alarms in case of fire, leaks and falls, body sensors to measure a person’s state of health, tracking technology such as GPS devices to be worn on the body, and robots to perform practical tasks in the home.
– Isn’t this all very high-tech – will older people be comfortable with this?
– I think everyone will be quite comfortable with anything that makes their life easier and safer. And we must not forget that we already have older people who are used to using a lot of technology, and there will be still more of them in the future. So it may not be so impersonal and frightening for many people. And last but not least, technology is there to support and help people, not to replace human care and attention.
Comprehensive policies for senior citizens
– Statistics Norway estimates that by 2060, 40 per cent of all Norwegians will be over 50 and more than 20 per cent will be over 67. What sort of society will it be?
– It can certainly be a very good society indeed. And in this society, we should not have rigid age limits. Individuals must be able to use their resources. The fact that older people are active and contributing benefits both society and the individual.
– You advocate comprehensive policies for senior citizens.What does comprehensive mean in this context?
– It means that the policies must concern themselves with many aspects of older people’s lives, and they must be based on knowledge, not unsubstantiated opinion. We need to know more about the number of senior citizens, their state of health, and their preferences when it comes to how they want to live. All in all, we need to base things on knowledge, and not on an outdated perception of what older people are like. When we have sufficient knowledge in these areas, we can create comprehensive policies for senior citizens.
– And finally, the ten-thousand-dollar question: what gives life meaning for senior citizens?
– Yes, there is no one single answer to that, not least because senior citizens are at least as diverse as other population groups. But I think one thing is important for everyone, and that is to be able to contribute to society, to make use of your abilities, your energy and your experience for as long as possible.
There are now 14 people on the National Council for Senior Citizens. Two of them represent the Norwegian Pensioners’ Association. They are the deputy leader of the Association, Liv Thun, and general secretary Harald Olimb Norman.