In 1982, the New Zealand Department of Health, as it then was, published – “Ageing New Zealanders“a report to the World Assembly on Ageing. This was called by the United Nations in recognition of rapid population ageing. It is worth looking back on this report and examining what issues have changed and what remain of concern nearly 40 years later.
The report begins with a Maori proverb –
Ka pu te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi – The old net is cast aside. The new net goes fishing.
The authors conclude, wisely, that the new net must go fishing but the old net should not be cast aside. With appropriate repair, new uses must be found for it. Thus, the ageing population still has value in its wisdom and potential to contribute.
Valuing older people
The United Nations report, and indeed all the major policy statements made since the 1980s, emphasise the need to change public attitudes to older people rather than portraying them as “outdated members of society who have very little to contribute” and who are subject to inevitable deterioration of mind and body. The “elderly” the report asserts “are stereotyped and regarded as a homogeneous group when in fact their individuality is far greater than younger people”. Yes, there has been some change, but are we there yet?
The vision of a “Better Later Life”, dated 2019, is that “older New Zealanders lead valued, connected and fulfilling lives” and among its guiding principles are that older people should be treated with respect and dignity and that their diversity should be recognised. Clearly some restatement was deemed necessary.
You may have noted one significant change already. Throughout the 1982 report we hear about “the elderly”. The World Assembly on Ageing defined this group as everyone aged 60 plus. “Elderly” as a term is now widely seen as ageist and demeaning, with connotations of frailty and decrepitude. This is not appropriately applied to an age group which now encompasses more than one generation.
Love and Sex (yes, this was a main heading)
The New Zealand report was probably well ahead of its time in its conclusion that – ‘The denial of love and sex in the elderly is perhaps one of the cruellest myths.”
“Sex is a stronghold of negative attitudes towards the elderly, for example that old are asexual or neuter, the “dirty old man” is jeered at or punished, and the old woman is sexually boycotted.”
Despite the fact that adverse changes occur with ageing –
“the broader perspective of sexuality, closeness, sensuality and intimacy is not lost and may become more acute and important with older years. We recognise the importance of keeping active physically and mentally, but often neglect the importance of continuing sexual activity for wellbeing. “
We have seen some changes in popular culture – films, TV – where older people are more often portrayed as attractive and “sexy”. So long as they do not become objects of advertisers’ exploitation.
Labour force participation rates for men and women aged 60 plus were declining in the 1980s. In 1976, in the age group 60-64, 58 % of men and 14 % of women were in full-time employment. In 1981 in the same age group the figures were 46 % and 13 % respectively. Some of this decline possibly related to National Superannuation being available at age 60, whereas the previous age benefit was generally available at 65. Age of eligibility has been shown to be a major lever influencing workforce participation, as was the case when the NZS age was raised from 60-65 and this continues to be a potential but controversial policy option.
Even at that time older men and women were over-represented as employers and self-employed workers – a trend which is attracting attention currently (see my post in March 2018). But some of this was put down to “the elderly’s significant employment in farming”.
Quoting a 1977 report – “The Employment Position of Older Workers in New Zealand” (“older workers” in this case referred to persons aged 45 plus). The report concluded- “projections show that the proportion of older workers to the total labour force will decline;” that their concentration in certain industries and occupations (for example in the primary sector) will continue and that “long established compulsory retirement schemes may be inconsistent with the present trend towards increased longevity.” Apart from the last, these predictions have not been realised.
The authors were correct, however, when they identified age discrimination as an enduring challenge. They linked this to a misunderstanding of the capacities and attributes of older people and the lack of retraining opportunities for older people. This last is an issue which has still not been addressed in any detail. In fact, the 1982 report’s conclusion is still apropos –
“One of the most neglected fields is education and elderly people in the future will have to become adjusted to being re-educated at a number of intervals during their life, including retirement so that they may realise their full potential.”
 Office for Seniors, New Zealand Government.