Reminiscences of Research – How much still holds up?

1. Where to now? 1990

Reminiscence can be defined as the act of remembering or telling about past experiences. The psychologists break it down into three types – information, evaluation, and obsession. It is typically associated with later life and reminiscence therapy appears to have positive results for older people, even those affected by dementia. Well, I have recently been trying it on myself as I look back over my research career.

Where to now? was published by the New Zealand Planning Council in 1990 (the sesquicentennial year – remember that?)1. It looked forward to what New Zealand would be like in the 1990s and the turn of the millennium, and acknowledged that “Where to now?” is an anxious question, especially in a period of rapid change.

Chapter 7 is entitled Old Ideas: The Ageing Society. I approached my re-read with some apprehension. Would it still have the capacity to inform or evaluate? Would there be the element of obsession, as I am still banging on about the same issues? Remember this thinking is a generation old.

“But you’re not really old, we say to those we know and love….. Old is a label pinned more easily on strangers……We see old people in the street – but hardly see them at all… They are merely waiting to die.”

This is how the chapter starts – ageism is nothing new. It continues – “If they were it would mean, for most, a long wait”, and continues to give figures for life expectancy, pointing out differences by gender and ethnicity. Notably, the figures are for life expectancy at age 60, much more realistic than figures at birth. Our average life expectancy has certainly increased since 1990, but the gender and ethnicity differences persist. Women still live longer than men although the gap has slightly decreased. Lower life expectancy for Maori is proving hard to improve.

Before the Human Rights Act came into effect, in February 1999, compulsory retirement was possible – its abolition was a highly significant and positive change. Where to now? notes falling workforce participation in the 1980s with under 10% of people over 65 in paid work in 1986. There has been a huge turnaround in this area and now 40% of people aged 65-69 are in the workforce, up from 28% ten years ago (see April and May blogs). In 1990 the message was:

“…we do not want old men in swept-up offices, old women in smart shops. We are more comfortable when they go home and do the gardening or take up bowls”.

How much of this attitude still remains?

The whole concept of retirement has changed – see the Where to now? cartoon below. For sure, “retirement does not mean the same for everyone” and it is still true that, despite retirement being a major event in anyone’s life, “little is done to prepare people for the dramatic change in lifestyle is heralds.”

blog 1

As the cartoon suggests people are fitter in their old age than ever before – this has continued. The proportion of the over 65s who live in residential care has not changed greatly since the 1990s. The chapter concluded by reiterating the diversity within the older population, which certainly continues to grow, in terms of ethnicity, work and family experience. The authors also expected values developed in earlier life to be influential. In the near future will we be seeing:

“ grannies who wore hippy bead and flowers (and) behind them a wave of ageing yuppies?”

Are they here already? Our views on that may vary, but I hope most would agree with the 1990 authors’ recommendation:

“We should be looking for ways to use older people’s energy and experience…. making it easier for them to contribute. We cannot afford to push so many people with so much to offer outside the mainstream of society.”

[1] Davey, Judith A., Westaway, Jane and Lowe, Isabel (illustrator) (September 1990) Where to now? New Zealand in the 1990s. New Zealand Planning Council, Wellington.

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About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

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