Resident Risto celebrating the week of the elderly by sharing a dance with one of the international members of the team. As he would say a few moments later during our conversation: “Party!”

SixDegrees hits the road to visit an aged care centre surrounded by Espoo’s wilderness. Once there, we witness first-hand the great connection between the international members of the staff and their experienced patients.

VANESA JORGE had been working as a nurse in Spain, the country she is originally from, for approximately four years before she moved to Finland last May. “Nowadays, the situation there is really bad,” she explains. “I wanted to cry every two days. The last hospital I was working for was private, and it’s really hard when you see money comes always before people; when you see the patient requires a concrete treatment and some other is granted to them instead due to economic reasons.”

This joyful expat also tells she was supposed to be “the lucky one”, because she was one of the few students who got a job immediately after graduating from university (around 80 per cent of her former classmates were unemployed at that time). “I got to do 17-hour working shifts,” she points out with a light touch of outrage. “All through the two years I worked in the private sector in Tenerife (Canary Islands) I was only offered temporary contracts, from one-to-three months long, which means that, for instance, I never had the right to enjoy any holidays at all.”

By mid-September, merely four months after she landed in this northern country, Vanesa had already found her way into the local labour market. From the very first moment she started to settle down she decided to give her best shot at learning the language. She joined some Finnish courses at the university and started to apply for different positions within the health field. Soon after she got her first interviews, but her language skills weren’t strong enough as to make it to the final stage of the selection process. However, she came across a definitive opportunity when through some common friends she met Érico Melo, a Portuguese gerontologist who told her there was an open position for a nurse at the aged care centre he was working at, Attendo Kuusikoti, situated in Espoo. After making sure her professional profile would fit the job’s requirements, Melo, who knew of the difficulties she could otherwise face on her way, decided to mentor her.

“It’s like from hell to heaven, in one step,” Vanesa says when asked about her new job. “When I saw the permanent contract I couldn’t believe it. What I had been pursuing in Spain for years without achieving it, I got it here almost at the first chance.”

Interview time! From left to right: Matti, one of the Finnish residents at Attendo Kuusikoti, Spanish nurse Vanesa Jorge and Portuguese gerontologist Érico Melo.

Unsatisfied need

Melo moved to Finland in 2003 and studied at a polytechnic university for three-and-a-half years. Then he returned to Portugal to finish his master’s degree in gerontology. After obtaining his qualification, he decided to permanently establish himself in Finland (his wife’s country of origin), where altogether he has spent over eight years now.

“I started working at the aged care centre in September 2009,” Melo comments. “So it didn’t take me long after coming back to Finland to land this job. However, I have to say that I was a bit too qualified for the role I first developed in here. So, I had to work my way up step by step.”

From the 43 employees working in the health care department at Attendo Kuusikoti, some 30 per cent are foreigners coming from a wide range of different countries. Going beyond the conventions of formal languages, this multicultural team bases their internal communication on their warmth and goodwill towards the elderly. Thus, lacking some vocabulary in Finnish is a small difficulty that can be easily overcome with the huge doses of passion these people show for their work – and, of course, having a little help from their local colleagues.

“There is a big need for foreign professionals in Finland, especially in the health sector and elderly care”, Melo states. “I totally understand that in this sector you have to manage the language to some extent, because you are dealing with delicate information regarding medical treatments, but, on the other hand, if people are not given any opportunity to learn, they will never do so. I consider there is some kind of cliché in this country about foreigners not being able to learn Finnish, which is quite unfair for people like us, who speak fluently. I am not saying Finnish is not a hard language to learn, it’s obvious that it is, but for sure it’s not impossible either.”

Jorge has a funny anecdote to illustrate Melo’s argument. “The first day I started to work at the aged care centre I was holding a conversation in Finnish with the person in charge of the maintenance and, when I told him I had been in Finland for four months altogether, he kept correcting me by saying, ‘You mean four years, not four months’, and I had to tell him, ‘Actually, I do mean four months’. He seemed to be quite impressed with the spoken level I had acquired in such a short time.”

A few obstacles down the road

So, if there is a clear need for expat talent, and in practise a perfect command of the language is not always a must, why is it so difficult then for most part of foreigners to get a work opportunity matching their professional background? For Melo the inflexion point for pursuing a career in Finland is, precisely, to land your first job.

“After you have gained some experience in the local market, then somehow you have proved that you are able to manage both the language and work routine well enough as to be competent at developing your tasks,” Melo says. “But getting there it’s not an easy path. Employers are sometimes afraid of hiring the wrong people because, once they hire somebody, they see themselves forced to offer a permanent contract almost right away, which means they can be stuck with that person for a very long time.”

Furthermore, when it comes to foreigners searching for a job in the Finnish health sector, another element seems to complicate the equation: the Valvira licence, the official document extended by the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health (Valvira), which authorises the use of the occupational title of healthcare professional when the latter has been obtained outside Finland.

“The Valvira licence has become a very bureaucratic process,” Melo observes. “Back in the day it didn’t use to be that way, but now it can take up to several months after applying for the person to finally get it. I think this institution is trying to put pressure on the people who are hiring, by stating that it is their ultimate responsibility that the employees’ level of Finnish is good enough, and that they will be the ones answering in case the employees commit any kind of major mistake due to a bad command of the language. This pressure is quite a new thing, and it’s getting people even more restrictive when hiring foreigners.”

Settling in: a one-day issue

Considering all the cultural uniqueness that Finland offers, one may be tempted to think that adapting to the work environment in the health field, where a good relationship with the patient is essential, entails a long and effortful process. “At the beginning the elderly would hesitate a bit about how well we understood them, even if they saw we were fluent in Finnish,” says Melo. “There is always a bit of a cultural shock; everybody is way quieter here than in southern latitudes, like in our countries of origin, Spain or Portugal. But, at the end of the day we are just people taking care of people.”

“The most important thing,” Vanesa adds, “is to show them that you are there for them. You have to act in a very natural way. You have to feel they are your family in a way, and, at the same time, respect their privacy. Soon after you will realise they also enjoy the fresh air you bring along with you. For them, every day in here looks pretty much the same, so you really need to try your best to put a bit of joy into their lives. I constantly laugh together with my patients – and I have been working here less than a month!”

What do the elderly say?

While in some South European countries it’s understood that the elderly will receive some care in their autumn years from their relatives, in Finland it is a very different story.

“With the social security system how it is established here, from a very young age you can get grants to study and become independent from your family,” Melo reflects. “Somehow that makes you grow apart from an early age. So, if you don’t have a close relationship with your parents when you are 19, then how is it going to be when you are 50? For many people it’s good enough if they go check on their grandmother once a year for Christmas. It’s really sad. That’s also the reason why people here get so attached to nurses and other members of the staff.”

According to Melo, there are long queues to get into a place like Attendo Kuusikoti, even with the state trying to emphasise the idea of people staying at home as long as possible, offering “kotihoito”, care-at-home resources, before supporting the possibility of applying for aged care centres.

“I like this place, and the people here; they are nice and friendly,” says Matti, a 67 year-old retired journalist who has performed a long career in different media and still enjoys practising his English every once in a while. He has spent roughly one year at the aged care facility, from where he gets the attention he needs to deal with his paralysed left side of the body. His recently incorporated Spanish nurse helps him manage his daily routine. “Vanesa and I have become very good friends,” Matti answers when asked about the link established between them, and then continues joking: “She knows I am a tall, dark-haired handsome man. For me, foreigners and locals are all the same, I make no distinctions. We are one big family here.”

Text and images Eva Blanco.