Now we return to the series on older people and the Christchurch earthquakes …
As Canterbury moves through the recovery phase, people are trying to re-establish everyday life; re-house themselves; have repairs done and negotiate compensation for loss. Older people share these challenges. There are problems and risks both for those who stay in their homes and those who move to new communities.
Many months after the major earthquakes, volunteers found older people in their homes who had not asked for help, who did not know what help was available, not wanting to go out, but who were not complaining. From an outside point of view they were in need of assistance, but the older people themselves did not always agree. They would be saying “I’m fine – others are worse off than me.” Sometimes it was taking up to three calls to find out what was actually needed; to identify their problems and options.
As time went on resilience began to wane. Support from neighbours, which was good initially, tailed off as they moved away or became exhausted themselves. Older people were left in neighbourhoods which are part deserted, surrounded by untended gardens, broken houses, uneven streets and footpaths. Graffitti and squatters add to the run-down atmosphere. Older people who moved to live with family could still be isolated, as relatives were likely to be out all day, and they were away from their usual social networks, in unfamiliar neighbourhoods.
Older people living in Red Zones have often found that government and insurance company pay-outs are not sufficient to re-house themselves without taking on mortgage debt. This may be hard to secure and hard to manage on low retirement incomes. The result has been downgrading of many older people’s housing situation, erosion of savings (including funeral funds and assets set aside for bequest) or moving into rental accommodation after previously having achieved mortgage-free homeownership through a lifetime of saving.
Older people living in intermediate zones are faced with even more complex financial and legal issues as they wait for detailed assessments of their land and houses and face delays and inconsistency over allocation of damage and cost estimates. Many people have been waiting for 18 months or more for a decision, only to find that they have to move and leave the homes and treasured gardens where they had set themselves up for retirement. Older people who were uninsured or under-insured are in even worse situations. General housing assistance is available to older people, including financial subsidies and temporary accommodation (where insurance coverage has expired), but the earthquakes have resulted in considerable strain on the rental market, where older people often find it hard to compete.
The activities of older people have been affected by the loss of community venues and infrastructure, delaying a quick return to normal life and increasing the risk of social isolation. Many churches were destroyed, as well as church halls. Halls which survived were often taken over by businesses. Interesting and innovative projects have emerged in Canterbury to improve morale. Some of these are oriented particularly to older people. They include informal initiatives, such as get-togethers for barbecues; shared meals organised by churches; concerts and intergenerational events. The Rockers of Ages Elders choirs are aimed at participation and fun for older people. They challenge stereotypes and provide health benefits.
Tracy Pirie, from the Kaiapoi Baptist Church, summed up the reasons why many older people felt alone and confused:
Many of the older residents have lived here for many years…the sudden disappearance or change in location of a supermarket and other shops, cafés, doctors surgery even a church (everything they had always known) had a profound impact. These changes, although unavoidable, added to the feeling of loss and grief. This loss was also a loss of social interaction and conversation. This in turn led to an increased feeling of social isolation.
Accessible and affordable transport is a key element in keeping older people involved and active in their communities, with benefits for their health and wellbeing. There have been initiatives to help older people to ‘get out and about’ and to meet their needs for contact and services, despite the poor condition of many streets and disruption to public transport. Some, especially those with health problems and those not familiar with online sources of advice, often need someone to accompany them to consultations with lawyers, insurance companies and government agencies. Age Concern staff and volunteers and the Earthquake Coordinators have been valuable sources of support.
In some areas supermarkets have provided buses or delivered groceries. The Red Cross distribute taxi chits for people with mobility issues or social isolation as result of the earthquakes. Red Cross, Age Concern and other organisations have helped older people who have moved to new areas to access the services they need and to apply for assistance. In addition to voluntary sector initiatives, commercial errand and driving services aimed at older people have sprung up.
Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor, suggested that Christchurch had moved into a ‘disillusionment phase’ in which people realised how long recovery would take and were becoming angry and frustrated about difficulties and delays. Older people in particular are faced with uncertainty and complex decisions, compounded by fear that, at their stage of life, they do not have time to spare. Tracy Pirie illustrates some of these issues:
The single most stressful issue post September 2010 and February 2011 has been housing. Some of the initial problems occurred when documentation and information supplied was difficult to understand and in some cases mail remained unopened (a form of denial). Delays in EQC assessors (elderly people don’t like to be pushy and are prepared to wait for their turn) and indecision by insurance companies have also added stress. The lack of funds, savings, and at times not having the correct insurance also have not helped the situation, meaning the building of new houses for elderly Red Zone residents has become nearly impossible.
Two years on, recovery is far from complete and the disillusionment stage continues.
Dr Judith A. Davey, Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington