Coping at University as an Older Person

Judith Davey


Once at university, the 60-plus students faced a range of factors, which impinged on their view of themselves as students and retired people[1]. The majority mentioned barriers to achieving their study objectives. These concerned life situations, especially time constraints. Comparatively few mentioned money as a personal problem, but several commented that study was an expensive business for retired people.

Barriers, arising from university systems and facilities were sometime mentioned. Diana complained about library restrictions and John about a shortage of computers. Some of the post-graduate students were having problems with supervision – finding appropriate supervisors; being accepted by the department; and the assessment system –

It has taken so long to get the second examiner’s report in for my thesis. I feel disappointed, isolated and frustrated – it has already taken some of the shine off. (Cynthia)

Thus far, these barriers were shared by adult students in general. But some were more clearly age-related. Students aged 60-plus were more likely to mention health problems, less effective memory and lower energy levels. Katherine found it hard to climb uphill to some of the classrooms. Rose and Sheila complained of lack of energy and arthritis. The men in particular suggested mental disadvantages, especially poorer memory, slower and less reliable thinking processes. As a result, examinations were almost universally stressful and difficult.

The head doesn’t work quite as well as it used to. (Trevor)

Older people are not as quick, more anxious, worry a lot. (Joan)

Despite the high proportion citing disadvantages for older students, almost all the 60-plus group thought that there were advantages. Life experience was stressed. This could bring greater tolerance and breadth of vision.

Older students bring life experience – they can see what authors are on about, how their minds work. Young ones are quicker and brighter and do get A’s, but they have tunnel vision. They see everything in black and white. (Rose)

Fewer distractions, ability to focus more, hormonal level zilch and I can spell. (May)

Don and John considered that older students could get on better with the university staff. Rae said that study keeps you mentally alert – “otherwise you would seize up like an old car”. In a more practical vein, several interviewees mentioned that students 60-plus had more time and fewer family demands to cope with. However these barriers were not completely absent.

There were a few comments about attitudes towards older people at university. Some felt a lack of opportunity to draw upon their experience or have opinions respected. Others found that relationships with younger lecturers could be difficult –

You can seem presumptuous and making things difficult. (Chris)

 Young people are embarrassed to tell older people what to do or feel they will become domineering. (Don)

Only Geraldine, however, felt that she had suffered seriously from ageism and sexism –

Members of staff do not take one as seriously as younger students. Mentoring is not as available for older students in my experience.

Thus, apart from accepting the physical and mental effects of age, the 60-plus students did not perceive any greater barriers to educational involvement than people in the 40-59 age group, and their attitudes were equally positive.

Outcomes of study

Apart from a boost to confidence and self-esteem, what else emerged from the experiences of the 60-plus group at Victoria University?

Gaining a qualification

It has been assumed that older learners are not interested in qualifications, grades and competition. This did not ring true in the Victoria University study. Retired people may want qualifications for personal accomplishment and satisfaction.

I achieved more than I expected of myself. It’s the satisfaction of achieving a degree and pleasure of study. Without a purpose I would rot away. (Laura)

The qualification is not important but it is important to finish for my self-esteem. (Katherine)

A smaller group felt that the degree was not an end in itself –

A BA is not important but I can’t see the point of flogging your way up there (to university) without there being something at the end. (Sheila)

Or even that it had become devalued –

It is not important for me to get a degree – a BA doesn’t have the aura it had years ago. It means nothing now; it’s not rare. (Chris)

Further Study

Many of the interviewees had considered that they were “not very bright”, but proved otherwise.  Several regretted not having studied more when they were younger. But this did not deter them from further study. Rose, Sheila and Joan were considering embarking on PhDs, but all had some reservations, in terms of their abilities, energy and financial resources. Others were contemplating further courses on an ad hoc basis. For example, Chris was seeking to move out from language study into (to him) more challenging areas such as philosophy and linguistics.

Advice to other older students

The respondents were asked what advice they would give to older people contemplating university study. The overall response was unequivocal encouragement.

Do it now. You don’t get any younger. (Katherine)

Go for it. Life begins at university. You can do it! (May)



[1] See Davey, J., Neale, J. and Morris Matthews, K. (Eds.) (2003) Living and Learning: Experiences of

University after Age 40.  Wellington, Victoria University Press.


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University Study in Retirement – Choices and Balance

Judith A. Davey


Why university study? Many of the 60-plus interviewees in our Victoria University study[1], who had not previously been at university expressed a long-held desire for study at this level, and for those who had been before it was an obvious choice for learning. Several people had tried distance learning but found it isolating and others were not satisfied by community-based classes. There were several comments on U3A courses, which were seen as low level and non-participatory.

Why study at all and why these subjects?

These questions are difficult to separate. For some interviewees the answer was a desire to pursue an interest of very long standing – either work-related, a hobby, or an aspect of personal experience. Work-related interests were not to the fore, although Don was taking BCA to update his accountancy skills and Katherine and Carl chose courses relating back to their careers as a political writer and a chaplain. Building on a long-term hobby was the motive for John. He had been playing the clarinet for 30 years and now he was retired he wanted to know more about the technical aspects of music so that he could adapt and arrange music for his group of amateur players. Lillian’s interest in art sprang originally from a paper on the Renaissance which was part of her history degree in the 1950s.

For some interviewees, the desire to study arose out of a comparatively recent interest. Trevor’s developed almost accidentally. Going to a recreational class on Polynesian dance led to university courses in Pacific languages and then a BA in anthropology and linguistics. Three years after her retirement, Diana went on a continuing education tour to Greece and Italy but was frustrated that she did not know more about what she was seeing. She went back to complete a degree in Classics. Experiences in other countries provided the impetus for some people. Chris went back to Italy to see people and places which he knew from the war and returned with a strong interest in learning Italian.

For several women, their most recent period of study represented a natural progression from earlier academic work. Laura picked up from her (1940s) studies in Latin and German and went on to complete an MA and a PhD. Geraldine completed her BA part-time while working and later an honours degree in English and Philosophy. When she moved into tutoring she was told she needed an MA. Rae is now working on an MA in Women’s Studies after completing her BA which she began in her 40s following the breakdown of her marriage.

How did study fit into life in retirement?

Did it provide a substitute for paid work? Several of those interviewed had very structured lives, of which study was only one part. Chris rose early and retired at 10, “regular as clockwork.” Others were clear that study provided structure in their lives. Deirdre had a work schedule, with breaks to buy a paper, do the crossword, meditate, walk and have a snooze. Some of the interviewees clearly saw university study as a job substitute and a means of giving structure to their lives –

After working for so long I could get lazy, so it’s good to have a routine. I go in 4 times a week – I just do it. (Susan)

 The University is “my club”. I come in most days and spend time socialising in the quad.  I sit in front at lectures and meet older students that way. (Don)

 The concept of study as a substitute for work can be carried further. Where people filled their lives with activity in retirement, they actually granted themselves “holidays” from it. Like paid work, the demands of study, even though freely chosen, can become onerous. Diana hinted at this –

Study does give structure to my life and this is important. I like the lectures, having lunch with people, getting out of the house, even the trip in to university by bus. It is good to understand what people are doing, not to feel shut out of the world. But sometime it’s a bit like slavery.

 She likened the completion of her degree to a second retirement, which she was sure she would manage better than her first.

Family and caring work occupied several of the interviewees, especially the women. Deirdre had 17 grandchildren, and some visited her daily. She found interruptions to her study bothersome, but she co-operated to enjoy the social contact.  Rose’s grandchildren also frequently came to stay – “I feel guilty when I have to say no to them when I have an essay due”. Grace was caring for her husband, who was severely limited by arthritis. She fitted her study around his needs, calling it “working in the cracks”.

All these examples show how people felt the need to remain busy in retirement, substituting study and other activities for career occupations, with overtones of a moral imperative. Nina made this clear –

I don’t find happiness in gambling (playing mah-jong) as my peers do. It’s a waste of time, I would rather read. Study gives me an aim and something to look forward to.


[1] See Davey, J., Neale, J. and Morris Matthews, K. (Eds.) (2003) Living and Learning: Experiences of University after Age 40.  Wellington, Victoria University Press

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University Study in Retirement – What influences people?

Judith A. Davey


Why would people in their sixties and beyond become university students? Surely work-related motives for study are left behind once people retire? Theories of human ageing can be useful in approaching these questions.


Status in our societies is mostly achieved through occupational prestige. After retirement this is difficult to maintain. The “identity crisis” theory of retirement, suggests that loss of occupational identity can be socially debilitating.  This assumes that paid work is the dominant factor in identity and that lost roles cannot be replaced. It is a very male interpretation of changes surrounding retirement and under-estimates other aspects of life such as family, friendships, unpaid and community work and leisure activities. Few people rest their entire identity on a single role.

Continuity and Substitution

The alternative ‘continuity’ theory suggests that people seek substitutes for activities left behind by ageing. Social contacts with family and friends or new activities such as leisure and education may be substituted for paid work, serving the same needs for self-esteem. Strands of life from the past may be resumed, interwoven and adapted. Substitution and continuity theory provide an alternative to the “disengagement theory” which gives a somewhat negative view of ageing, suggesting that it is a time of withdrawal from life.

What experiences and knowledge can people draw from to make these selections and adaptations? Work history, both paid and unpaid, is one influence. Family history and local culture are other important sources of continuity.

The 60-plus Group at Victoria University[1]

These ideas can be illustrated by the experiences of – students at Victoria University aged 60 plus, showing how study can contribute to maintaining a positive identity in retirement. People aged 60 plus represented a very small proportion of students at Victoria University who came into our study – only one in every 300; 21 were interviewed in depth, with ages ranging from 60 to 82.

Early education and influences on educational choices

Their initial education dated back to the 1930s and 1940s. Seven were early school leavers; some went straight into degree courses, but not all finished them at that stage; others went into some type of professional training, including nursing and teaching, or began “on-the-job” or apprenticeship training.

Gender expectations were prevalent at the time and could cut across class. Sheila’s father was an accountant and she attended private girl’s school[2]. But her parents didn’t think that further education was important for a girl. Neither of Katherine’s parents had any secondary education. She gained School Certificate, but left school at 16 and took up typing because her parents could not afford to support her and her brother in education.

Parental aspirations could be more encouraging. Some working class parents were ambitious for their children. Trevor’s father was a farm worker. When he passed his scholarship for grammar school there was debate about whether he should take it up. His father thought he ought to go to work – further education would be too expensive. His mother disagreed and her view prevailed.

Decisions about leaving school and further education were also influenced by work opportunities. In the 1950s and 60s in New Zealand there was a labour shortage; jobs were easy to obtain and replace.

The Second World War affected many of the interviewees and their educational prospects. Rose’s father was killed when she was four. Her mother was left very poorly off with three girls to rear. So Rose had to leave school and go to work. Grace and Chris were nearing school-leaving age when the war began. Grace’s parents wanted her to go to university, but she opted for teacher training as more practical. Chris had intended to begin a law degree but instead left school, joined the army and did two years officer training. Before the end of the war, at age 19, he was with an engineering corps in Italy.

Subsequent Education

Some interviewees had long gaps in their education. Laura took her law degree, but did no other study from her early twenties until well after her retirement. Sheila completed four units of accountancy immediately after school, but did not go back to formal study until she left work.

For several, especially the men, ongoing study was encouraged as part of their careers. Examples include Trevor in personnel management; Chris (army), Carl (church ministry) and several of the female teachers. Others, however, made a personal effort to study. Lillian abandoned her MA when she married, but took extra-mural papers while she was at home with her children. Joan gave up her music degree for similar reasons, but took continuing education music courses while caring for her family.


The group’s experience of retirement was variable. Some reached a set retirement age for their workplace or negotiated an agreed time with their employers. Others were less willing to give up work. Diana left teaching at 63 after feeling pressure from her colleagues who thought that younger people needed the work. Grace remained in distance education until she was 72, when a requirement to upskill seemed like a signal to go.

Some people started their courses very soon after retirement, but others delayed their studies for several years. For Deirdre the trigger was the death of her husband, when she was 73.

Four interviewees were already studying at university level at the time of retirement. For John and May this was overtly “in anticipation of retirement.” Susan and Grace were working part-time on their BAs, over a number of years. Several did not consider themselves retired. However all were working only part-time and had either left or did not have a career job.

So why university study? This will be covered in my next blog.


[1] See Davey, J., Neale, J. and Morris Matthews, K. (Eds.) (2003) Living and Learning: Experiences of

University after Age 40.  Wellington, Victoria University Press.

[2] The interviewees have all been given pseudonyms for reasons of confidentiality.

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Older People are working longer – where, what and how?

Judith A. Davey 8/09/17

In a previous blog I talked about how the population may change in future, looking at Statistics New Zealand projections. One important trend is the increased participation of people aged 65 and over in the paid labour force. In 2015 I published quite a few blogs on this as I was then involved in a project called Making Active Ageing a Reality.[1] But these did not present information on the industries which older people are working in, their occupational categories or hours of work.

I won’t go over general trends again, but look at industry and occupation data for people 65 plus and full-time/part-time participation from census data.

Industry categories

Older workers, 65 plus, are spread over a wide range of industries, few of them reaching 10% of the total. The largest grouping is in agriculture, forestry and fishing – 14%. This is nothing new and mainly reflects the fact that farmers, most of whom are self-employed, tend to “stay on”.  They can regulate their own working hours and bring in labour for tasks which they cannot or do not want to continue doing themselves. There has never been compulsory retirement in the farming sector.

The next highest category is health care and social assistance – 11% of workers 65 plus. This includes doctors, nurses and allied health workers, as well as paid carers and support workers. This is significant given the importance of these groups for the ongoing health and wellbeing of our population. If these workers are ageing there may be shortages of skills when they leave the workforce. According to a Health Workforce New Zealand report,[2] 40% of doctors and 45% of nurses in this country are aged 50 or over. And 54% of the “non-regulated” health workforce – care and support workers – is in the 45 to 64 age group.

A number of further industry categories account for about 6% each of the 65 plus workforce – education and training; retail trade; manufacturing; professional, scientific, and technical services.

Occupation Categories

Older workers are also found in all occupations, mostly in skilled categories. They are clustered in the following table.

Workers 65 plus Number %
     Managers and executives 25044 22.1
     Professionals, including health and education 22896 20.2
     Clerical and admin workers 12180 10.7
     Machine, stores, drivers 11385 10.0
     Labourers and factory workers 11199 9.9
     Skilled technicians and trades 10854 9.6
     Care and service workers 10731 9.5
     Sales workers 9030 8.0

Source: 2013 Census of Population

The largest categories tend to be managers and professionals, likely to have qualifications and to work in an office environment. These are the “choosers” – see later.

 Full-time and part-time work

The image of older workers tends to be that they will work part-time. This is not totally borne out by the figures. While women are more likely to work part-time than men, there have been some interesting movements in patterns of work over the last three censuses (see table). For both men and women there have been increases in the proportions working full-time. This increase was especially marked in the 2006-2013 period. The proportion working part-time has correspondingly dropped for both men and women.

Full-time and Part-time percentages – Workers aged 65 plus, by sex

Groups % 2001 Census 2006 Census 2013 Census
Full-time Male 54 57 62
Female 32 34 40
Part-time Male 46 43 38
Female 68 66 60

As might be expected, the proportion of full-time older workers decreases with age to only 9% for women at 85 plus. But it may surprise some that one in four men who are working at the age of 85 plus are working full-time, probably farmers again.

Percent of total employed working full-time, by age and sex, 2013 Census
65-69 70-74 75-79 80-84 85 plus
Female 48 33 20 14 9
Male 72 54 38 30 25

The characteristics of people who are working after the age of 65 in New Zealand reflect categories which were suggested by the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce (CROW) in the UK.[3]

Choosers – this group is the most amenable to staying on in work. Most are managers or professionals, predominantly male, with high incomes. They often have choices whether to work or not, may do so mainly out of interest and can often stipulate their working conditions.

Survivors – who are motivated strongly by the need for an income. This group typically have few or no qualifications and are in routine and semi-routine jobs. They have little control over their working lives or leverage with employers. If they continue to work it may be in a lower paid and possibly insecure job.

Jugglers – “jugglers” are balancing domestic and caring roles (responsibilities to older parents/relatives and caring for grandchildren) with paid work. Almost all of them are women.  They are likely to work in intermediate occupations and to work part-time.

[1] Davey, J. (2014) “Paid Employment.” In Koopman-Boyden, P., Cameron, M., Davey, J. and

Richardson, M., Making Active Ageing a Reality: Maximising participation and contribution

by older people. Report to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. National

Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, University of Waikato, Hamilton.

[2] Health of the Health Workforce 2015, Wellington, Ministry of Health 2016

[3] McNair, S., Flynn, M., Owen, L., Humphreys, C. and Woodfield, S. (2004) Changing Work in Later Life: A study of job transitions. CROW, University of Surrey.

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Forecasts, estimates, projections and prognostications – how can we look into the future?

Judith Davey 3/7/2017

Statistics New Zealand (SNZ) is clear that it makes projections about the future, not predictions. Its projections are the outcomes of “various combinations of selected assumptions about future change in the dynamics of population change.” We can assume that trends will continue along the lines which they have established in recent times. Or we can factor in new directions based on emerging trends, overseas experience or “best guesses”.

We can’t be sure about what will happen in future with respect to –

Fertility      – (how likely is another baby boom?) SNZ thinks fertility will remain low.

Mortality     – linked to longevity, in which we hopefully expect further gains.

Projections cannot take into account factors such as catastrophes, epidemics, wars and government decisions which affect population trends. What about migration? There have been marked variations in movements in and out of NZ in recent years. Governments have some control over this, but what if all the expatriate Kiwis choose to come home?

I recently looked at projections related to the ageing of the populations – a trend which is very likely to continue. Here are some of my findings.

Changes in the age structure

We are likely to see a shift in the balance of children and older people in our population (see diagram). There are still more people under 15 than over 65. But the projections show that the lines will cross in about 2028 – just over 10 years from now. If the 65 plus age group continues its rise, by 2068 the NZ population will be made up of 28% under 15s; 24% aged 15 to 64; and 48% 65 and older.

Actual and projected figures for the under 15 and 65 plus populations


What will this mean for “dependency rates”?

These compare the proportions in the so-called “dependent” age groups with those of “working age” – 15-64. This is a somewhat outdated measure as people are staying in school or tertiary education for longer at the lower end (school leaving age is now 16) and people are remaining in paid work in greater numbers after the age of 65. Would 20 to 75 be a more realistic definition of the working age population? These changes will have implication for future labour and skills supply, which will have significant social and economic implications.

Change in the ethnic composition of the older population

In 2013 the age group 65 plus was dominated by Europeans (88%) and this is likely to continue into the future although in a less marked form (see table). All other ethnic groups will increase their share, with the Asian group rising to a percentage higher than that for Maori – 14% Asian and Maori 9%.

Population 65 plus by ethnicity, 2013 and projected 2033            

Ethnic group 2013 % 2033 %
European 88.3 77.3
Maori 5.8 8.9
Asian 5.1 13.9
Pacific 2.6 3.8

Note: The census allows more than one ethnic affiliation to be recorded, so the sum of these categories will be higher than the overall total.

Life expectancy at birth and age 65

It is important to distinguish between life expectancy at birth and at age 65. Life expectancy at birth has increased from 67 to 80 for males between 1950-52 and 2014-16. The corresponding increase for females is 71 to 83.

The increases are even more striking for life expectancy at 65. Life expectancy at 65 is higher than at birth as individuals reaching that age have avoided dying from illness and accidents which happen to younger people.

Life expectancy is expected to continue to increase, but there are many uncertainties. SNZ suggests that for people born in the mid-2010s perhaps 11% of males and 17% of females will reach the age of 100.

Falling home ownership

At present, home ownership peaks in the 60-74 age group, but has fallen for all age groups over the last three censuses, except for the age group 85 plus (see diagram). In the middle age range – 35-54 – the percentage of homeownership has fallen by 10 or 11 percentage points. Over the total population it has fallen from 74% in 2001 to 64% in 2013.

So in the future we can foresee more people moving into later life without owning and house or, given the rise in house prices, without having paid off a mortgage. This is likely to mean higher housing costs for them and more difficulty in achieving a good standard of living once out of the workforce.

ownership tender

Labour Force Participation

Over the last three census dates there has been strong growth in numbers of older people remaining in the workforce, especially in the 65-69 age group, and especially for men. These trends are expected to continue with people living longer and healthier and no compulsory retirement.

males vs females

Between 2015 and 2068, the total labour force is projected to rise from 2.5 million to 3.3 million. These projections suggest that the number of workers aged 65 plus will increase from 183,500 to 428,300 – by 174%, rising from 6% to 13% of the labour force.  At the same time the total workforce will increase by only 31% and the numbers aged 15-24 (new workforce entrants) will decrease by nearly 1%. From this I suggest that employers will have to acknowledge necessity of keeping their older workers on and providing them with the working conditions which suit them, such as flexible hours, recognition of eldercare responsibilities and ergonomic improvements in offices and factories.

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Implications of an Ageing Population – the view from 1982

Judith Davey


In another of my nostalgic moments, trying to winnow down my mountain of paper, I came across notes from a seminar in 1982.  This was a report-back by the New Zealand delegates from the World Assembly in Ageing, held in Vienna. They included the well-known names of Margaret Bazley and Margaret Guthrie.

The audience of about 70, including me (in the early stages of my interest in ageing) broke up into discussion groups, after material from the World Assembly had been presented. The groups reported some far-sighted conclusions. In some areas we have seen action in over 30 years, but others still need attention. Here is a summary, with my comments.

Could there be investigation of postponing receipt of universal superannuation (New Zealand Superannuation) beyond age 60, with increased increments at a later stage?

 The age of eligibility increased from 60 to 65 in the early nineties. Now a further increase from 65 to 67 has been announced, but only in increments from 2037 (20 years and almost 7 parliamentary terms away). Deferring receipt for a higher pension has been periodically suggested, but there are questions about fairness. Managerial and professional people would find it easier to defer and would end up with higher retirement incomes. Those not in a position to work longer would have a lower NZS and possibly hardship.

The well elderly need stimulation, recreation and education and places to socialise. NGOs could be funded to facilitate schemes using both voluntary and professional workers.

 The “young-old” are well represented as volunteers, but staying in paid work longer may limit this activity. There is little to encourage voluntary work and tighter regulations, such as police checks, may put some people off. In parts of the USA volunteers are rewarded by discounts on property taxes (rates) or given vouchers for education which can be transferred to other family members.

There is very little in the way of lifelong learning, re-training and re-skilling for older people.

We need flexibility in the mandatory age for retirement, because “people vary in their ability and interest in work”. What about flexible working hours and job-sharing?

 There is no more compulsory retirement here. The Human Rights Act came into effect in 1999. Section 22 forbids employers from discriminating against suitably qualified job applicants on the grounds of age and outlaws compulsory retirement. So it annoys me when people, often the media, talk about “the age of retirement”. I want to shout to them that there is no such thing. They usually mean age of eligibility for NZS.

 The Employment Relations (Flexible Working Arrangements) Amendment Act 2007 came into force in July 2008. This provided employees responsible for the care of any person with the right to request flexible working arrangements (variation to their hours, days, or place of work). The amendment was later reviewed, and the provisions extended to all employees. Of course, it still depends on the employer’s agreement.

Women over 50 need better financial support when they are often looking after their families and elderly parents or relatives.

 The treatment of working carers is an emerging labour force issue. Many people in their fifties and sixties still have parents alive, many of whom need care and support. In some countries family carers receive payments through the benefits system. But although it has been raised here, it has not become policy. There is no change in the fact that more women than men take on (or are expected to take on) eldercare responsibilities and this may affect their earning ability.

In an ageing population, we need to avoid stereotypes and accommodate differences in expectations of roles and accommodation standards. There is still a negative attitude towards ageing, so there should be lifelong preparation for the later period of life.

 The Human Rights Act may officially ban age discrimination, but it remains widespread through stereotypes and expectations that older people will lose their mental and physical capacity and become dependent. The Positive Ageing strategy and the Healthy Ageing Strategy contain exhortations about giving older people respect and dignity, but you only have to look at the birthday card selection for people 60 plus to see that negative attitudes are alive and well.

“The elderly” should have increased participation in their own decisions (I think we know what they mean). One group appealed for full integration of older people, regardless of disability or special needs, in all parts of life, with community support.

We have seen some progress in this area, with the setting up of Elders’ Councils and advisory committees of older people in many local authorities. The movement towards “age-friendly cities and communities”, if the WHO vision is adopted, should improve urban environments for older people, and for everybody. Again the Positive Ageing and Heathy Ageing Strategies call for greater participation for elders. After all, the “giving back” of wisdom is one of the psychological “tasks” of later life.

The seminar passed a unanimous recommendation to the Prime Minister asking government  to set up a Commission of Inquiry into the implications of an ageing population and to develop integrated policies concerning: income maintenance; housing; health, employment; social services; education and any other relevant matters.

In closing, the chair, Professor McCreary, noted similarities between these recommendations and the findings of the 1955 Conference on “the Ageing”. Some things do not seem to change, but we can hope!

Posted in Attitudes and values (culture, sexuality and spirituality) | 1 Comment

Older People and Alcohol in New Zealand

Judith Davey

What do we know about alcohol drinking among older New Zealanders?

Very little, according to the Health Promotion Association (HPA).[1]

The 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey showed that around 82% of 55 to 64-year-olds, 79% of 65 to 74-year olds and 66% of people 75+ drink alcohol.[2] The highest rates are for Europeans/Pākehā – 77%, followed by 58% of Māori, 21% of Pacific peoples and 52% of ‘other’ ethnic groups.[3]

Wine is the most popular tipple among older people, followed a distant second by beer and spirits. Port or sherry drinking is now comparatively rare. When asked, older people say they drink to be social, to enhance social situations or special occasions, or to relax or unwind. Most link alcohol with food, many drinking around meal times. Older people mainly drink at home or when visiting friends or family. As they move into their sixties and seventies, older people tend to drink less alcohol than before. For some, especially older men, their drinking evolves into a pattern of daily, or near daily alcohol use, but at relatively low levels of consumption per drinking occasion – ‘a little but often’.

What are the reasons for these changes?

They may include reduced social activity, lower incomes, the onset of health problems, or a combination of factors. Alcohol aggravates health conditions such as liver problems, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression. People with these conditions may be advised by their doctor to reduce their drinking.

Health problems may disrupt usual patterns of socialising, making it harder to go out or limiting energy. Some older people also tone down their drinking in response to physiological changes that increase their sensitivity to alcohol’s effects. Of course some maintain or even increase their alcohol consumption as they age. They may have more opportunities to socialise and fewer family and work responsibilities.

What are the effects of drinking for older people?

While many continue to drink in old age, some older people drink in ways that are potentially unsafe. Apart from obvious effects such as intoxication, alcohol dependence or abuse, a wide range of health conditions have been linked to drinking, including liver disease, pancreatitis, cancer, stroke and high blood pressure. Some of these may result from the cumulative effects of a lifetime of alcohol use.

Also, many older people take medicines that are incompatible with alcohol, such as antihistamines, sedatives and antidepressants. Drinking alcohol may exaggerate the effects of drugs, increasing the risk of injury from falls or other mishaps.

Alcohol itself may be the cause of accidents suffered by older people, which often occur at home. Falls are a particular risk and may have long-term consequences.

Because of decreased tolerance, older people show certain effects of alcohol at lower doses than younger people. This is why older people can have the same drinking pattern for many years and only have alcohol problems when they are older.

On the other hand, a number of studies identify associations between low alcohol use and reduced risks for a few health conditions, such as coronary artery disease. Do the negative effects of alcohol outweigh the positive effects? The experts are still not sure.

How many older people drink hazardously or harmfully?

The majority of older men and women drink safely. The Health Survey found that only 11% of 55 to 64-year-old drinkers, 7% of 65 to 74-year-old drinkers and 3% of 75+ year-olds drinkers drank hazardously or harmfully. But, given older people’s greater vulnerability to the physical effects of alcohol, their greater risk of chronic medical conditions and use of medicines incompatible with alcohol, perhaps hazardous drinking thresholds should be lower for older people.

Categories of older problem drinkers

‘Early-onset’ problem drinkers are those who have been drinking harmfully for much of their adult lives, and continue to do so.

‘Late-onset’ problem drinkers may have used alcohol at mild or moderate levels when younger, but, as they age they may start to drink much more heavily, for reasons often associated with grief and loss, anxiety, depression, boredom, isolation, loneliness and chronic pain.  Sometimes they are advised to have a “nightcap” to help with sleeping difficulties, which can lead on to dependency.

Future challenges

Would it be useful to stipulate age-specific safe drinking guidelines for older people? How can we identify and help older people who may be drinking hazardously or harmfully? And how can we help people cope with bereavement, retirement, loss of independence and physical and cognitive impairments?

Alcohol abuse and dependency may remain undetected in older people because many are socially isolated.  They are less likely to get in trouble with the law and less likely to be noticeably drunk in public. Older people with alcohol problems are often wary of accessing treatment because of associated stigma and shame.  It is important that these people have regular social contact, and receive non-judgemental and unconditional treatment.


[1] Ian Hodges and Caroline Maskill (October 2014) Alcohol and Older Adults in New Zealand. Health Promotion Agency, Wellington.

[2] New Zealand Health Survey 2012-2013, Ministry of Health, Wellington.

[3] Percentage of people 64 plus who had consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months.

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