Training and Re-training for Older Workers

Judith Davey

4/3/21 Updated from July 2016

Will the ageing of the population lead to labour and skill shortages and increasing recruitment problems? Almost everyone I spoke to in my research on workforce ageing in New Zealand agreed that it will[1]. So, then the question arises: Is training and re-training older workers a possible solution to skill shortages?

There was overwhelming agreement with this among employers, with some qualifications about the type of work involved and the willingness of older workers to undertake training.

“It depends on individual receptiveness and willingness. Some workers don’t want to do anything different.”

Older workers may have physical limitations and cannot continue heavy work, even if training is available. Some employers thought that mental ability may also be a problem when it came to IT training, but others contested this and said that older workers only needed appropriate encouragement. Many lack higher educational attainment, making further learning – getting back to the classroom – challenging. There were also reservations about the usefulness of formal courses, suggesting that re-training on the job was preferable. Given these considerations, some employers recommended training related to motivation rather than job content alone. Older workers need the self-confidence to demonstrate their value, marketability and desire to work, perhaps in non-traditional ways.

Older people have already got 80% through being at work and only need 20% to top up.”

As an example, a financial manager in a firm I was talking to was unwilling to go to an Institute of Management course on some new aspect of accounting. She lacked self-confidence and felt she would be seen as ignorant. In the end I said I would go with her and off we both went. It was soon clear who lacked the knowledge!

Who is responsible?

The candidates were the government, employers (sometimes through ITOs) and the workers themselves. Most respondents thought that government has a role to play, especially to provide information on needs and benefits; to identify and respond to gaps in skills; and to provide encouragement to employers to provide training. Many advocated a joint approach, suggesting:

Tax breaks for employers, training subsidies for all workers – encourage employers to take responsibility. We need a policy and practice framework with employers involved and subsidised”.

Some respondents called for three-way responsibility between government, employers, and individual workers, sometimes bringing in unions and other stakeholders.

A lot of criticism was directed at cuts to adult and continuing education in the community, which have come back into the news recently. There was recognition that not all education and training is employment related.

Are we meeting the needs of the mature workforce? We are hindering older workers in making choices about workforce participation.”

This was a strong vote for life-long learning and participation by older workers.

Do older workers need special conditions for training?

The answers were mixed. Some respondents said no: that age alone should not be a factor; that the most important thing was an individual approach to learning. Technology was often mentioned.

“We must be careful not to alienate older workers with too much technology.”

“Generally older people have challenges around technology. They need accommodation and longer to learn, but it is not impossible.”

This suggests a different pace for courses; more one-to-one attention; small group work; discussion; courses spread over longer periods; and case studies attuned to personal experience. The respondents who were least in favour of retraining pointed out that many aspects of their work are not changing, in content or in the culture which surrounds them, e.g. in retailing. This latter view may be changing given the strong move to on-line shopping.

Payback to employers – Will employers invest in education and training for older workers if they can’t see them staying long enough for this to benefit the business financially?

Most of the employers I interviewed did not think there was a cut-off age beyond which it would not be worthwhile to provide such opportunities. In any case, even younger workers cannot be relied on to remain in the same job for long. Instead, they said it would depend on the individual abilities of the worker and what they could contribute.

“It’s an individual thing, some are atrophied at 50; some are marvellous at 70.”

Update from the OECD

These attitudes are confirmed by an OECD report The Future of Work, 2019, which concluded –

Strengthening adult learning is crucial to help workers successfully navigate a changing labour market. A major overhaul of adult learning programmes to increase their coverage and promote quality is essential to harness the benefits of the changing world of work.”

They note that training participation is lower among older adults than younger people and confirm the barriers they face to training participation, such as a lack of motivation, time, money or employer support. Policy options revolve around building a learning culture among firms and individuals.  Training needs to be of good quality and aligned to labour market needs. This requires adequate and sustainable funding, shared by stakeholders in line with the benefits that are received.

Longer working lives resulting from increases in retirement age/pension eligibility, adopted in many OECD countries, are expected to strengthen the willingness of firms to train older workers and encourage older workers to invest in their skills development. A worthy aspiration!


[1] I interviewed employers and representatives of public and private sector organisations about attitudes to older workers and factors which either encourage or discourage older people from staying in paid work. This was part of a project – Making Active Ageing a Reality – undertaken through the University of Waikato, funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and published in 2014. Quotes in italics come from this report.

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Training and Re-training for Older Workers

Judith Davey
4/3/21 Updated from July 2016

Will the ageing of the population lead to labour and skill shortages and increasing recruitment problems? Almost everyone I spoke to in my research on workforce ageing in New Zealand agreed that it will[1]. So, then the question arises: Is training and re-training older workers a possible solution to skill shortages?

There was overwhelming agreement with this among employers, with some qualifications about the type of work involved and the willingness of older workers to undertake training.

“It depends on individual receptiveness and willingness. Some workers don’t want to do anything different.”

Older workers may have physical limitations and cannot continue heavy work, even if training is available. Some employers thought that mental ability may also be a problem when it came to IT training, but others contested this and said that older workers only needed appropriate encouragement. Many lack higher educational attainment, making further learning – getting back to the classroom – challenging. There were also reservations about the usefulness of formal courses, suggesting that re-training on the job was preferable. Given these considerations, some employers recommended training related to motivation rather than job content alone. Older workers need the self-confidence to demonstrate their value, marketability and desire to work, perhaps in non-traditional ways.

Older people have already got 80% through being at work and only need 20% to top up.”

As an example, a financial manager in a firm I was talking to was unwilling to go to an Institute of Management course on some new aspect of accounting. She lacked self-confidence and felt she would be seen as ignorant. In the end I said I would go with her and off we both went. It was soon clear who lacked the knowledge!

Who is responsible?

The candidates were the government, employers (sometimes through ITOs) and the workers themselves. Most respondents thought that government has a role to play, especially to provide information on needs and benefits; to identify and respond to gaps in skills; and to provide encouragement to employers to provide training. Many advocated a joint approach, suggesting:

Tax breaks for employers, training subsidies for all workers – encourage employers to take responsibility. We need a policy and practice framework with employers involved and subsidised”.

Some respondents called for three-way responsibility between government, employers, and individual workers, sometimes bringing in unions and other stakeholders.

A lot of criticism was directed at cuts to adult and continuing education in the community, which have come back into the news recently. There was recognition that not all education and training is employment related.

Are we meeting the needs of the mature workforce? We are hindering older workers in making choices about workforce participation.”

This was a strong vote for life-long learning and participation by older workers.

Do older workers need special conditions for training?

The answers were mixed. Some respondents said no: that age alone should not be a factor; that the most important thing was an individual approach to learning. Technology was often mentioned.

“We must be careful not to alienate older workers with too much technology.”

“Generally older people have challenges around technology. They need accommodation and longer to learn, but it is not impossible.”

This suggests a different pace for courses; more one-to-one attention; small group work; discussion; courses spread over longer periods; and case studies attuned to personal experience. The respondents who were least in favour of retraining pointed out that many aspects of their work are not changing, in content or in the culture which surrounds them, e.g. in retailing. This latter view may be changing given the strong move to on-line shopping.

Payback to employers – Will employers invest in education and training for older workers if they can’t see them staying long enough for this to benefit the business financially?

Most of the employers I interviewed did not think there was a cut-off age beyond which it would not be worthwhile to provide such opportunities. In any case, even younger workers cannot be relied on to remain in the same job for long. Instead, they said it would depend on the individual abilities of the worker and what they could contribute.

“It’s an individual thing, some are atrophied at 50; some are marvellous at 70.”

Update from the OECD

These attitudes are confirmed by an OECD report The Future of Work, 2019, which concluded –

Strengthening adult learning is crucial to help workers successfully navigate a changing labour market. A major overhaul of adult learning programmes to increase their coverage and promote quality is essential to harness the benefits of the changing world of work.”

They note that training participation is lower among older adults than younger people and confirm the barriers they face to training participation, such as a lack of motivation, time, money or employer support. Policy options revolve around building a learning culture among firms and individuals.  Training needs to be of good quality and aligned to labour market needs. This requires adequate and sustainable funding, shared by stakeholders in line with the benefits that are received.

Longer working lives resulting from increases in retirement age/pension eligibility, adopted in many OECD countries, are expected to strengthen the willingness of firms to train older workers and encourage older workers to invest in their skills development. A worthy aspiration!


[1] I interviewed employers and representatives of public and private sector organisations about attitudes to older workers and factors which either encourage or discourage older people from staying in paid work. This was part of a project – Making Active Ageing a Reality – undertaken through the University of Waikato, funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and published in 2014. Quotes in italics come from this report.

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Mixed age workforces – are they a good thing?

One of the consequences of older people staying longer in paid work is that workforces are more likely to be comprised of people of different ages. Are mixed-age workforces a good or a bad thing for business and what views do employers hold on this? Research among New Zealand employers produced an extremely high response that mixed-age workforces are good for business and this applied to organisations of different sizes and in different areas of the economy.[1]

 Advantages of a mixed age workforce

The most frequently quoted advantage was the mix of experience and skill levels, along with the mix of stability and initiative (and technical knowledge) which a mixed age workforce can provide. Employers interviewed saw mixed age workforces as a blend of “loyalty and vibrancy”, as an opportunity for old and young to share experiences and learn from each other. This gives a wider range of perspectives in the work of the organisation and reflects the diversity of society as a whole.

An advantage is that older workers are able to mentor younger workers.
(It provides) a mix of knowledge and skills. Younger staff motivate older staff to increase learning to stay ahead. Older staff become resources and mentors to younger staff.

There are also advantages from the customer relations perspective.
Allows us to match clients and their needs with people that understand them/are best suited to working with them.
Several employees mentioned the steadying influence of older workers as opposed to the emotional volatility of the young.
Seniors have a calming influence and provide stability. They can help younger workers, especially those who have failed school. Older workers make a difference by being there and just saying “this is how we do things”.

Only a few of the employers brought up any drawbacks to mixed age workforces. These centered mainly on possible difficulties arising from the differing attitudes of Gen Y and Gen X, as against the baby-boomers and older people. Younger people tend to be more au fait with new technology and older people may resent this. On their part, younger workers may see their older colleagues as a barrier to their promotion – a fear that could increase the longer that older workers stay on. However, any potential drawbacks, suggested the employers, could be managed with better communication, better consultation, and flexibility in work roles.

I was reminded of the findings of my research when I read the Centre for Ageing Better’s work chapter in their recent report The State of Ageing 2020. [2] Their question, thinking about the post-covid world, was Could older and younger workers working together hold the key to the economic recovery?

Quoting OECD analysis, their conclusion was that mixed age workforces could be a key contributor as firms seek to boost their productivity. They found that, not only are older workers just as productive at work as any other age group, but also that. having older workers in a team is associated with increased productivity of co-workers around them, particularly younger colleagues.
The effects of having people over 50 in the workforce are to boost productivity through their lower job turnover, greater management experience and greater general work experience. Greater productivity gains mean higher wages for everyone. Rather than being in competition, different age groups working together can help both businesses and individuals.

Given these advantages, the report poses another question – Are individuals, employers and the economy ready to embrace multigenerational teams? They conclude that the benefits depend on an environment which supports people to stay in work for longer.

Dr Judith. A Davey

[1] Research I carried out with the help of the Institute of Management, published by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2008 – Workforce Ageing – An issue for Employers. Quotes in italics are from interviews associated with this project.

[2] Centre for Ageing Better, London, 2020.

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Preparing for Later Life: a glaring gap in lifelong learning provision

Posted on November 17, 2013by Age Concern New Zealand ‘on research’

People embarking on marriage and parenthood and other life events can go to courses to help them through the transition, but where can they go for learning on the transition to later life – the life stage formerly known as “retirement? The concept of “retirement” is changing. For many people the process is no longer a “cliff edge” transition from full-time work to full-time leisure. It is becoming much more of a transitional stage, which may involve gradual movement out of the workforce, during which lives consist of different mixes of paid and unpaid work, voluntary and caring work, and leisure.

People are making the shift from the workforce into full retirement over what may be more than a decade and the experience is likely to be different for everyone. The common factor is that people are moving into later life and this entails a whole range of changes, well beyond the sphere of paid work.
As is the case for many life transitions, planning can ease the process, helping people to prepare for change.  Education (in its broadest sense) can provide the information necessary to plan, to cope with all aspects of transition and to achieve successful evolution into the next stage.

So what “pre-retirement” education is available now? It seems that courses are almost totally focused on financial preparation, except for a very few, run by employers, and one-to-one life coaching. I believe there is an opportunity for adult educators to fill this gap and thus for people, and the baby boom generation in particular, to be better informed about a crucial stage of life, about which there are so many fears and misconceptions.
Why is this important? Well, the period between leaving the workforce and death used to be about 5 years on average, now it is very often over 20 years. Life expectancy at age 65 is 18 years for men (average age at death 83) and for women 20.6 years (average age at death 86.6).

Financial security in later life is indeed crucial, but pre-retirement education, which can contribute meaningfully to adjustment to later life and positive ageing, must have a wider brief. Other essential topics include health and fitness, housing and lifestyle, relationships and family, options for paid and unpaid work (including flexible working options), legal issues and personal security.

Few New Zealand employers offer any type of pre-retirement education. Where they do, this is likely to be those with larger staff numbers in the “white collar” sectors. Their motives tend to be centred around being a good employer – “doing the right thing” by their workers. Employers’ reasons for not offering pre-retirement education are that they are too small, that they could not afford it, they do not see any advantage to themselves as employers, or that it is not their responsibility, but that of the government or the individual.

The courses are often seen as part of policies for staff welfare in general, like stress and crisis management and health checks.  They are rarely seen as contributing to growth or productivity. Given an ageing workforce, and the prospects of skill and labour shortages in the future, some employers are beginning to recognise the need to retain valued older workers rather than encouraging them to retire. Pre-retirement education can be a tool for staff retention, to explore options to continue working, with flexible conditions, and to contribute to succession planning.

Workforce-based pre-retirement education may be sparse, but there is even less available to the public in general, through the usual adult education sources. If people wish to prepare themselves for later life in New Zealand, they are dependent on what they can find in libraries, bookshops and on the internet. Sorted.co.nz is a great resource, but, as I said, the need is wider than financial preparation.

Where pre-retirement courses have been evaluated by the participants, immediate levels of satisfaction have usually been good.  But little is known about their long-term outcomes. Do existing courses lead to a better adjustment to retirement, more successful ageing and better quality of life in old age? At present we do not know. But the potential benefits of pre-retirement education/preparation for later life are extensive, including:

  • Understanding of the processes of normal ageing, the myths and the realities.
  • Better adaptation to change in personal life as we age – facing both positive and negative life changes, learning about personal relationships and how to make them better, exploring our roles as parents, grand-parents (even great-grand-parents) and partners and how these may be changing.
  • Helping older people to care for themselves and preventing illness, promoting self-help, building coping skills and self-esteem.
  • How to make the best use of spare time to promote wellbeing, to develop networks and contacts with others; using skills to promote personal satisfaction and find increased meaning in life.
  • In community and civic life, how to become effective and participative members of the community, including being involved in planning and governance, based on lifetime experiences and wisdom.

How can we fill the gap?

Dr Judith A. Davey

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More Older People will be renters – A trend we cannot ignore

Judith Davey

11/02/21 updated from 20/2/18

Hardly a day goes by without a headline relating to the “housing crisis” – the situation of first home buyers struggling to accumulate a deposit as house prices soar; renters having to cope with increased costs and accommodation shortages.

The rate of home ownership in New Zealand is the lowest it has been in 70 years, dropping from a peak of 73.5% of households in the 1990s to 64.5% in 2018. And the rate is projected to fall even further in the future.

Even though home ownership is higher for older people, they are especially vulnerable if their housing tenure is insecure and if their housing is cold and damp. Renters cannot easily adapt or modify their housing to deal with declining health and reduced mobility. Renters are forced to move more often than owners, especially if they have private sector landlords and tenure conditions are changed. Many surveys have shown that renting in New Zealand is associated with social and economic deprivation. It is the poorer people in any age group who are more likely to be renters.

Some of this will change due to the changing Tenancy Laws. From 11 February 2021, multiple changes to tenancy legislation will take effect. The changes will cover: Security of rental tenure, Changes for fixed-term tenancies, Making minor changes, Prohibitions on rental bidding, Fibre broadband, Privacy and access to justice, Assignment of tenancies, Landlord records, Enforcement measures being strengthened and Changes to Tenancy Tribunal jurisdiction.

The implicit assumption has always been that NZ Superannuation will be sufficient to support a basic lifestyle provided that the recipients are homeowners and have paid off their mortgages by the time they reach the age of eligibility. So falling home ownership and increased renting among older people should be a cause for concern.

In 2008 a report on trends in renting by older people was prepared for the Department of Building and Housing. 1 Its findings have been updated where possible.

· The proportion of people aged 65 years or older living in rented accommodation increased only slightly from 2001 to 2013 – 24% to 26%. This is a lower percentage than for the total population at present (35.5% renters).

· Two-thirds of older renters have private landlords, with the rest renting from central government (20%) or local authorities (15%).

· The number of older households renting from private landlords has been increasing. So this is the dominant tenure type for renters aged 65 plus.

· Nearly two-thirds of older renters’ households consist of one person only and the majority of these are composed by women.

Projections

However, based on the 2008 report the projections to 2051 are concerning.

· By 2051 the number of households with a reference person 65 years or older is projected to increase to 820,000, of which 169,000 are likely to be living in rented accommodation (21%).

· Between 2006 and 2051, the number of older renter households in the 65 to 74 age group is projected to more than double. In the 75 to 84 age group it will nearly triple. In the 85 and over age group numbers will grow nearly nine-fold, from 6,670 to 53,885.

· Numbers renting from private landlords will grow from 34,970 in 2006 to 112,260. Those renting from central government will increase by about the same amount, from 10,865 to 40,450. Renting from local authorities is projected to nearly double, to 16,130 households in in 2051.

These figures call for policies to increase the supply of affordable rental housing designed with older households in mind, particularly single (and female) tenants. Can the private sector be relied upon to do this? Concerns are frequently expressed about the quality of housing in this sector, with calls for independent “warrants of fitness.”.

In the past, local authorities received subsidies and low interest housing loans from central government, but both central and local government public rental stocks have been cut and there is considerable concern about pensioner housing rent increases and sales.

It seems there is a role for innovative private and public rental developments, with central and local government, private sector and ‘third sector’ (i.e. voluntary organisation) landlords working together.

Given growing numbers of very frail and disabled older people, rental housing providers of whatever sort need to recognise the need for home-based services and investment in appropriately designed housing, and also that housing needs interact closely with care needs. This means better integration of social support, health care and housing, and changing expectations, values and standards concerning the quality and appropriateness of housing. Innovative approaches to planning and design and increased engagement of users in the development of housing models and advocacy services are required for all sectors of the housing market. It is vital that the needs of renters are not obscured by the needs of majority homeowners and efforts to increase homeownership.

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Forgetfulness: Normal Ageing or early Dementia?

29 January 2021
Written by Dr Doug Wilson

Originally published on www.rymanhealthcare.co.nz

A few months back I visited someone in Mangakino, a small New Zealand central North Island town, originally built for the workers who were constructing the huge hydro dam of the same name. I had visited there as a kid to see the massive building works.

When I returned home, a drive of around 40 minutes, my wife enquired where I had been. I knew where I had been in crisp detail, but not the name of the town. Whakamaru was the next town and that I remembered well from my schoolboy visit over 60 years ago. But Mangakino had taken fright and raced away from my finely tuned neurones. “Come back,” I wanted to shout. But I could only bleat: “It’s slipped my mind. I’ll remember later.” Simple solution: I’ll google it, or least the neighbouring dam: Whakamaru. Sure enough, there on the map nearby was Mangakino. Problem solved. Nope. Not solved at all. After I closed the Google screen I called out to my wife: “It was XXXX?” The pesky word remained absent, absent without leave I might add, and the Google jog had gone with it. I began to think that I’d better check in to a dementia unit as I was losing it, and what did I need to take with me?

Common sense prevailed as I felt on top of stuff otherwise. So I wrote the word Mangakino on a card and placed it beside the phone and computer. It took three days for that pesky neurone either to wake up, or pass the name to an underworked neighbour. And it did, and now I am Mangakino educated and friendly.

I don’t have dementia!

So occasional, or even common trouble with memory recall is a feature of normal ageing. When dementia arrives, at first with isolated episodes of abnormal or even bizarre behaviour, sudden mood changes, or increasing patches of forgetfulness or lack of recognition of people they know well, or increasing confusion, then it is time for action. Daily skills begin to fade; individuals can struggle with conversation; judgment becomes unreliable; they may wander without knowing where they are, and their personality can alter materially. It is time for a proper medical assessment, to be sure that the issue is dementia, as in many instances it is something else. You don’t want to get it wrong! Self-diagnosis is a wobbly zone and can prematurely label a spouse or loved one with a disturbing diagnosis that it is not.

Sometimes the individual is reacting adversely to medication; drug doses for older subjects are commonly too high. Or their thyroid gland is out of kilter, or there are disturbances of their liver or kidney. Type II diabetes can induce changes suggestive of dementia, as can mini strokes. Too much alcohol in the elderly is a common disrupter of behaviour and memory. Depression and anxiety can over-run the governors of normal behaviour. A bladder, or even deep skin infection may tip behaviours off balance and individuals can appear confused. Low levels of vitamin B12 are a common cause of abnormal behaviour and personality in older people.

So find the disorders that are not dementia and get them treated. Missing a masquerading condition that is readily identified and treated is a major lost opportunity to discard the dementia label and return life to its rightful path. There are a range of tests for dementia that doctors and psychology professionals use to cement the diagnosis.

Although there are different forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s being the most common, there are many others, such as dementia with Lewy bodies, the affliction that targeted Robin Williams and triggered major behavioural crises and hallucinations. However, with a few differences, the long term course is rather common for all causes of dementia, with slow decline, as the individual becomes withdrawn and their very sense of self becomes dragged towards the dementia realm. Even watching themselves in a mirror many see a stranger looking back at them.

What to do? Is there a cure or a treatment? There has to be, as so many conditions, even cancer, are benefitting from new treatments these days. At present there is no treatment that addresses the underlying disease process. It is essential for families, partners and spouses, once the diagnosis is certain, that they learn to accept the predictable decline in the patient, and their inevitable loss of the individual they have known, as they are replaced by a slow moving and thinking stranger who occupies their body.

There are short term drugs: anticholinesterase drugs such as Aricept or Exelone which can restore some memory and initiative and decrease anxiety. But these benefits tend to fade over 12 months. At the present time, despite billons of dollars spent on massive research programs, nothing has appeared to arrest or reverse this condition. And nothing will for a few years. This also means that occasional trials of unique interventions delivered by very caring relatives, describing very positive outcomes, are unlikely to be transferable or to move the general treatment world of dementia very far or be sustainable.

Not all is depressing. Many people with dementia are surprisingly happy with their lot and have a jolly disposition. Perhaps in some primitive way they see themselves getting away with outrageous things, they might long have wished to do. A pattern of exercise is very helpful to reduce the rate of decline into frailty and disability. At the same time people’s susceptibility to infection and physical decline can be accelerated if their nutrition is ignored, and they benefit from positively monitored dietary guidance. There are wide differences in the rate of decline as the disease plods its path rapidly in some, and slowly over some years in others. Faster decline is more common in those where the disease asserted itself at a younger age. Interaction with family and carers will assist the patient’s mood, and to some extent their rate of decline.

About the Author

Dr Doug Wilson is a physician and medical academic as well as a writer.

For the past 30 years he has monitored the scientific literature as it relates to ageing, and the conditions that may interrupt your enjoyment of that process. His background as a physician, a scientist, and a developer of new drugs, he’s well placed to distil clear messages from the huge forests of data that exist and confuse.

Doug’s aim is to cut through the fads and fallacies to concentrate on the core issues and the physiological and psychological reasons behind them.

Armed with this information, we can plan for our older years to be golden years, not tarnished, confused or stressed years.

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Getting older and more creative

Doug Wilson 15.01.21

Doug Wilson

The relationship between creativity and age has long been questioned. Academics conclude that the average peak of creativity is in our 20s, reaching a peak in early 40s, before declining.

However, this represents an average figure, assessed by measurable output in science and art. There are a wealth of exceptions. Many older people happily trundle along, comfortable in how it’s always been. But others ignore their age, diving into new projects, living a busy creative life.

Despite creativity fading on average with age, at 80 many individuals have exhibited they can create new stuff. If you’ve got enough to start you will still have tons left as age rolls on.

Frank Lloyd Wright finished the Guggenheim Museum, age 92, Verdi was 70 when he released his masterpiece Falstaff opera at 85, Michelangelo sculpted till his death at 88 and Grandma Moses began painting after 70. Perhaps creativity is fading in today’s world as screens and headphones create isolation bubbles, limiting the flow of ideas between individuals.

A friend, a past international political journalist, now in her mid-70s, takes every conversation into her unique world. She sees frailty in the self-confident, excitement in the banal, hope for the underprivileged. Most of us see two sides to many questions, she sees five or six sides. Take your pick. That is dazzling creativity.  

George Washington University conducted a formal study of creativity in older people. A group of 150 people with an average age of 80 met regularly with creative individuals in the arts and humanities. A control group of 150 enjoyed their cups of tea and their usual life, and the two groups were compared. After two years the study revealed the first group who pushed to exercise their creative skills gained immeasurably in confidence and independence. Pursuing the creative was not only a pleasant diversion but resulted in a positive gain in good living. Creativity improved wellbeing.

I was born in 1937, and I grew up in Auckland. We had no TV, and minimal radio for kids. Classic Comics and books were my stimulation. I had a vivid imagination, but my spelling dyslexia made it difficult to convert my ideas into stories that others could read. So I pursued a medical career in New Zealand, London, Oxford, Melbourne, Saudi Arabia, and eventually as a pharmaceutical executive in United States and Germany.

My wish to be a writer, remained as powerful as ever, but my writing and spelling incompetence continued the barrier. Spellcheck, and the dictating Dragon Speak, broke me through to the creative universe of writing. I published my first kid’s story aged 76. My hero Tom Hassler, arrived, firstly to battle the Rats of Droolmoan Cave. A series of kids’ books have followed to fair acceptance.

I’ve written 11 books for kids in seven years.

Publishing gives me an outlet for my pent-up wish to produce stories for others. I needed a creative outlet, and technology helped me find it. I’ve also published a guide for older individuals: Ageing for Beginners and have almost completed a successor book. How did it come together?

Stories were no problem for my imagination, but I had no experience of the technique of writing fiction. So various rewrites were needed to escape from the language being ponderous, and even archaic. My friend Spellcheck was there to overcome my dyslexia. A writing course with Tessa Duder followed and the task became increasingly easy, as the characters took on their own life and drove part of the script.

At 83 I’m still enthusiastic. I’m writing for kids, as well as translating complex medical and scientific information into useful communications. I’m a regular on Radio New Zealand with Kim Hill talking about ageing and my Ageing for Beginners podcasts have found fans around the world. In Kim’s words, I am reporting from ‘the frontline of ageing’. Live radio and podcasts force me to be more deliberate about selecting and marshalling of facts, all the time defaulting to make complex scientific communications simple.

And in my spare time my imagination conjures up books like Zeke Battle: Earthquake Boy.

Is creativity possible after the age of 70?

It sure is.

You gain, but so do others.

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Solving the housing crisis – inter-generational tension?

Judith Davey 11/12/20

Looking back over nearing 200 blog posts which I have written for the Age Concern New Zealand since 2012, I notice a considerable number on housing for older people and one, in September 2019, on inter-generational conflict. The latter came to mind when I read two articles in a recent Policy Quarterly (Vol.16, 2, 2020) on the housing crisis. It seemed to me that they had the potential to raise another possible cause of inter-generational conflict, adding to concerns about the tax burden of an ageing population, the cost of NZ Superannuation and the impact on the job market.

One, by Nick Wilson is entitled – Fixing the housing crisis: the role of inter-generational policy design in addressing the issues and the other Downsizing property among the older generation: a means to free up New Zealand’s housing stock is by Richard Mclaughlan.

Causes
Both set out the causes of the housing crisis as they see it, discussing the effect of inconsistencies in capital taxation; they give property a relative tax advantage which homeowners have benefited from, but which raise house prices for younger people.  

Among other causes are barriers to development –“ The Resource Management Act is widely  considered  to  be  a  central  issue  restricting housing development;” and the fact that urban infrastructure is not able to support new residential  developments in some areas.  

But Mclaughlan expands on how contrasts between generations have resulted in inequities. Decreases in home ownership among the 30-49 age groups have resulted in “increased periods of renting and financial insecurity among this cohort”. On the other hand, baby boomers have largely benefited from secure home ownership. Despite higher interests rates in the 1970s and 1980s, inflation rates quickly eroded  away  mortgage debt and made it much easier to enter the property market. “Subsequently, this generation has realised disproportionate financial gain from property,” as well as being lightly taxed.

Mclaughlan suggests that this has resulted in an “over-consumption of large dwellings by  retirees which adversely affects first home buyers.”  Rather than downsizing to a more suited property,  couples  or  single  individuals “continue to enjoy large dwellings late  into  retirement.” And this “inefficient use of housing stock … will only get worse as  retirement  periods  increase”.

Solutions
Just as taxation settings have contribute to the housing crisis, they could also be part of the solution. Dixon suggests a centrally levied land tax or a capital gains tax (despite the latter’s current  political  unpopularity).  A tax burden on older homeowners could be countered by reverse mortgages. However, he also calls for “constructive inter-generational conversations  about  public  policy” which could “help reduce  inter-generational  tensions  that  could  otherwise  prevent  the  development  of  enduring beneficial policies.”

Mclaughlan also feels that a capital gains tax is required to “mitigate the benefits enjoyed by older property owners”, and to discourage the over-investment in property. But his emphasis is on downsizing, which he asserts “has the capacity to provide a better quality of life to vulnerable elderly who struggle with day-to-day tasks.”

While he acknowledges that it is “not the place of public policy to dictate the actions of this cohort” he insists that policy must be used “to remove distortions which incentivise retirees to remain in artificially large houses.” And that “Older generations can save by reducing their dwelling size, while at the same time increasing  the  ease  of  access  to  amenities  that  are  in  the  neighbourhood of their property.”

To achieve the required scale of downsizing will need financial incentives and the increased provision of one- and two-bedroom houses. This could be achieved, suggests Mclaughlan, by reducing council rates for the elderly in areas with high density one–two bedroom households and cash incentives to facilitate the move.

Mclaughlan concludes –“If  more  appropriate housing options were made available for  retirees, a significant proportion of large dwellings would be made accessible to young  and  expanding  families. “While increasing the supply of housing should remain  the  focal  concern   for   the   government, resources should be devoted to freeing up existing stock to mitigate the  housing  crisis.”

Wilson also concludes – “It is clear that New Zealand faces a large housing issue, one that is inter-generational in cause and can also be inter-generational in solution.”

I have always maintained that no single type of housing is appropriate for all older people and that there should be wider choice of housing options for this age group. So, while I sympathise with the housing problems of young people, especially families, I am cautious about anything which might smack of coercion applied to older people in their housing choices and preferences.

An option which I find attractive is the construction of several small units, designed for later life living, on large sections scattered around urban areas. In this way smaller houses, appropriately designed and not requiring large-scale gardening, could allow older people to remain in their familiar neighbourhoods, with social contacts not just with their own age group (as in retirement villages) but also with neighbours of other generations. How could this be achieved? There are already examples in areas where local authorities are forward-looking in their regulatory processes.


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Volunteering – good advice from the UK

Judith Davey 27/11/20

In many of my blog posts I have mentioned “generativity” – the “giving back” by older people to society and specifically to oncoming generations. While not mentioning the concept of generativity specifically, numerous policy statements and “strategies” emphasise the importance of contribution and participation as part of positive ageing – outlining the benefits to individuals, communities, and society as a whole. Volunteering is a major way of realising contribution and participation, but many organisations are finding it difficult to recruit volunteers, and older people are a major source for this.

There is plenty of evidence of how volunteering can benefit older people – serving
as a replacement for work and family roles that may figure less prominently in later life. British research has shown that volunteering among older adults is correlated with increases in well-being, mental and physical health. “As well as helping others, we help ourselves through building confidence, social connections and a sense of purpose.”

Other research, this time from the USA, suggests that volunteerism among older adults tends to be concentrated in more advantaged groups – those who have more education, higher income, better health, and some religious involvement. More older women than men volunteer, but older men are more likely to formally volunteer than are younger men.

Given these benefits, it is worth looking ways to encourage volunteering among older people and the barriers which may discourage them. The research findings also suggest that widening participation among social groups is a relevant goal.

“We have an ageing and increasingly diverse population. We need a new
approach to community participation and volunteering to ensure that more people enjoy the wellbeing benefits of being involved with their communities” (CBA, 2020).

The Centre for Ageing Better in the UK has recently published a report – Helping Out – Taking an inclusive approach to engaging older volunteers. This is a guide designed as a practical tool to support organisations working to engage with volunteers aged over 50 and to widen participation. On the basis of widespread consultation, this report again found that those who are least healthy and least wealthy are the least likely to take part in volunteering, but also the most likely to benefit.

Barriers to volunteering

The CBA review found that many people face practical, structural and emotional barriers to taking part in volunteering. These barriers can worsen for people as they age and their personal circumstances change – for example, developing a health condition or taking on caring responsibilities. Types of barriers identified were –

Practical – cost, transport needs, physical access, language.

Structural – inflexible offers, bureaucratic processes, lack of resources, digital divide.

Emotional – lack of confidence, stigma/stereotypes, lack of welcome, fear of over-commitment, not feeling valued.

The main messages from the CBA report, to combat these barriers were –

Connect and Listen
• Spend time listening and getting to know your volunteers to find out what skills and experience they bring, and what they want to do. Use conversations rather than formal applications.
• Listen and empower people to do what matters to them – and in ways that work for them. Consider diversity.
• Celebrate everyone’s contributions and share stories, successes and experiences. Encourage regular participants to welcome and support newcomers to help them develop confidence and new skills.
• Instead of using the term ‘volunteering, which can be off-putting, talk about ‘helping out’, ‘being a good neighbour’ or ‘giving time’.

Remove barriers
• Make the application, joining and induction processes simple, with clear and accessible information and concise forms.
• Focus on the person and the support they might need as an individual. Often emotional barriers are overlooked, such as lack of confidence or self-esteem.
• Think about ways to support people to take part. For example, offer respite for carers, help with travel to venues, access to and training for digital work.

Be flexible
• Make activities fun and welcoming. The social aspect may draw people to opportunities to help in their communities.
• Create a range of opportunities to suit different circumstances, interests and abilities and different levels of commitment.
• Try out different low-tech, low-cost, low-risk ways of engaging with people. Offer a choice of quick, easy tasks, in shorter chunks of time that people can take part in
with little or no commitment.
• Consider developing ‘taster’ or ‘micro-volunteering’ sessions and activities.

[1] Centre for Ageing Better (CBA) 2020, Helping Out – Taking an inclusive approach to engaging older volunteers. ageing-better.org.uk

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“Longevity Dividend” 2 – What can we do to delay the biological processes of ageing?

Judith A.Davey 13/11/2020

In my previous post, when I looked at the social, health and economic benefits of the so-called “Longevity Dividend” I noted that this change could come about by delaying the biological processes of ageing and thereby extending the lifespan of the human species. And even if we make progress against specific diseases, the biological processes of ageing continue. All living things have biochemical mechanisms which influence how quickly they age, and we may be able to adjust these mechanisms, but how?

What is ageing?
“Ageing is commonly characterised as a progressive, generalised impairment of function resulting in increasing vulnerability to environmental challenges and an increased risk of developing disease.”

Why do we age?
The biological state of an organism reflects its capacity to regulate and repair many internal biochemical and biological processes as well as to deal effectively with the effects of the external environment. In humans, changes associated with ageing begin as early as the third and fourth decade and include a progressive reduction in the functioning of vital organs in the body, such as kidneys and heart. This process relates to molecular, cellular and physiological changes.

Over time there is a decline in the ability of an organism to maintain optimal and steady functioning. This involves changes in biochemistry, genetics, DNA and cellular replication. So far, there are no treatments or therapies that have been demonstrated to slow or reverse this process in humans.

Telomeres are specialised regions located at the end of the DNA sequence and act to protect the ends of chromosomes. As each cell renews itself there is a reduction in the length of the telomere. Although telomeres act to prevent uncontrolled and cancerous cellular division, telomere shortening contributes to the ageing process as the number of divisions that a cell may undergo is capped. Telomere length is not fixed and there is significant variation between individuals.

DNA defects also promote the ageing process. During a lifetime DNA will gradually develop damage through a wide variety of mechanisms and this damage will eventually lead to the dysfunction of genes, proteins and cells.

What about genetics?
Observational studies in humans have highlighted particular genes that are associated with exceptional longevity. In the natural world longevity genes have not been subjected to strong selective pressures, because, even if an animal possessed a longevity gene, the benefit would only be realised if the animal successfully escaped all causes of death (predators, disease etc.) or was reared in a protected environment. There has been little evolutionary pressure to select organisms possessing longevity genes and animals have typically allocated genetic resources to ensure reproductive efficiency instead.

It has, however, become apparent that there is a clear relationship between genetic make-up and the ageing process in humans. Longevity genes may act to increase the resistance of the cell to stress or improve its capacity to undertake genetic repair. Longevity genes can also affect various biochemical pathways and reduce the risk of age-related disease development. The children of centenarians have a significantly reduced incidence of diabetes and heart disease compared to age-matched controls, suggesting inherited genetic protection.

Human studies suggest that around 25% of the variation in lifespan is dependent upon genetic profile with the remaining 75% being related to external environmental influences. However, it has been found that more than 50% of decline in cognitive function in older age is determined by genetic factors.

Telomere length is also heritable. People with shortened telomeres are more likely to develop conditions such as atherosclerosis, vascular dementia and infections. If the genetic basis for telomere length can be accurately determined then it may become possible to manipulate telomere length to reduce the risk of developing age-related diseases.

Environmental factors

As we grow older, the influence of environmental factors on our health becomes more important, and the influence of genetic factors less important. The environmental factors that accelerate ageing are those that influence cellular damage and repair. Prominent among these are environmental chemical toxins, such as asbestos, lead, mercury and smog particulates.

Only a small proportion of cancer arises from family history or genetics. Much more is related to environmental factors – smoking, poor nutrition, lifestyle choices – lack of exercise, diet, exposure to sunlight and toxins.

Studies of the ageing of identical twins, with identical genetic make-up, show that differences in visible ageing signs relate to personal lifestyle choices and habits. The most notable factors influencing degree of ageing are sun exposure and smoking. Other possibly contributory lifestyle factors are alcohol consumption, stress, diet, exercise, and medication. It seems that genetic influences on ageing may be overrated, with lifestyle choices exerting far more important effects on physical aging.

How to live longer – all to do with lifestyle
Overall, it seems that physical fitness is the single most important thing an older person can focus on to remain healthy and live longer. This should be accompanied by what we have all heard many times before – better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in health care, better accessibility to education and improved working life, and maintenance of function (social, physical, and psychological).

What else could help?
Caloric restriction (CR) involves a reduction in calorie intake whilst maintaining all the required nutritional substances. CR extends life span and retards age-related chronic diseases in a variety of species including rats, mice, fish and worms. Preliminary experimental results have also yielded promising initial results in primates.

Although there has been comprehensive development of medication and therapies that can reduce the incidence and development of age-related disease, there are no agents that comprehensively reduce cellular damage.

Research therefore suggest that the risk of developing age-related disease processes can be influenced by genetics and lifestyle change. It is the latter which is more likely to be achievable if we want to prolong life and improve its quality.

[1] Dr Lloyd Hughes, What influences how we age? https://www.gmjournal.co.uk/what-influences-how-we-age

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