Age friendliness in action – practical assistance for older people in New York City

Judith Davey


It is hard to imagine that any city in New Zealand could learn from New York, USA. Its population is over 20 million, five times that of the whole of this country. But it provides some great ideas about age-friendliness – a topic I have been working on recently.

In 2007 the New York City Council, working with the New York Academy of Medicine, carried out community consultations, focus groups, interviews, and surveys, in 14 neighbourhoods and in six languages. There were round table discussions with business, housing, social services, health, transport and education experts. This produced Toward an Age-friendly City: A Findings Report (Goldman et al. 2016). [1]

The Age-Friendly New York City Commission was set up and an action plan drafted. The guiding principles are well worth noting:

  • An ageing population is an opportunity, not a crisis;
  • Older people must be involved in all phases of problem identification and resolution;
  • Initiatives should address the full diversity of the older population – their functional capacity, economic resources, age, gender and ethnicity;
  • Initiatives should be grounded in evidence;
  • All sectors (public and private) must be engaged in developing solutions to eliminate barriers to older adults’ full participation in society.

Here are examples of some practical measures to assist active ageing in New York City.

  • Streets – Older people reported significant barriers to pedestrian safety including inadequate street crossing times, poorly maintained sidewalks and lack of seating. One person said, “I age every time I have to cross the street.” The NYC Department of Transportation, through its Safe Streets for Seniors Program evaluates conditions in areas with high rates of senior pedestrian fatalities or injuries and implements mitigation measures. These include extending pedestrian crossing times, constructing pedestrian safety islands, widening curbs and medians, narrowing roadways, and installing new stop controls and signals. These changes have made streets safer for all New Yorkers.
  • Walkability – The Department of Transportation is installing 1,500 benches around the city to improve walkability. These are particularly near senior centres and housing; hospitals and health centres; shopping districts and municipal facilities, such as public libraries. Individuals and communities can request a bench in a specific location. Older people report having made new social ties with people who frequent the same benches at the same times.
  • Bus Shelters – The Department of Transportation replaced almost all pre-existing bus shelters and installed 4,000 additional ones at locations identified by older people, with seating and transparent walls. These shelters are paid for by advertisements on their sides. As a result older people can feel safe and independent walking their streets and going about their daily lives. It also serves to decrease social isolation as people get out more.
  • Transport – Through a partnership with the Department of Education, school buses can be used by senior centres to transport older people on shopping trips when buses are not needed for children.
  • Recreation – When discussing recreational opportunities, older people said they had not used public pools in decades because they felt uncomfortable among children and teenagers. The Department of Parks and Recreation piloted senior-only swim hours at one public pool, known as “Senior Splash.” The programme was so popular that it was expanded to 16 pools throughout the City and water aerobics instruction was added. An evaluation of this programme indicated that older people who participated in water aerobics had greater lower body strength and flexibility than those who did not.
  • Business – The Age-Friendly Local Business Pilot Project was launched in 2011. Businesses were approached, provided with a resource guide, and encouraged to carry out simple enhancements, such as offering chairs for older people. They were also given window decals so that older adults would know which businesses were age-friendly. A small study suggested that participating businesses had higher average cash receipts than similar non-participating businesses.
  • Professions – Age-Friendly New York City has also approached professional associations to encourage them to think about their work in new ways and to see population ageing as an opportunity for professional growth. Professions approached included architecture and design, law, pharmacy, library sciences, and urban planning. “Best Practices” brochures, were created in collaboration with professional associations and disseminated to members.

All great ideas – don’t you think?  What about it NZ?

[1] Information comes from Goldman, L., Owusu, S., Smith, C., Martens, D. and Lynch, M. (2016) Age-Friendly New York City: A Case Study. Chapter 9, pages 171-190 in Moulaert, T. and Garon, S.(Editors) (2016) Age-Friendly Cities and Communities in International Comparison: Political Lessons, Scientific Avenues, and Democratic Issues. Springer International Publishing, Switzerland.

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Ageing and Policy – how have attitudes changed?

Judith Davey

For 24/2/17

The book which is taking up a lot of my attention at the moment – Age-Friendly Cities and Communities in International Comparison – has a sub-title – Political Lessons, Scientific Avenues, and Democratic Issues. In the chapter contributed by Alan Walker, of the University of Manchester[1], he looks at how the view of ageing and older people has changed over the decades in the eyes of policy makers. He concentrates especially on Europe, but there is some relevance to New Zealand.

In what Walker calls the ‘golden age’ of welfare state construction following Second World War there were both positive and negative outcomes for older people. On the one hand government income support raised their living standards. There had been high levels of poverty in old age in most European countries in the 1950s and 1960s (one in three older people in the UK were classified as poor and one in five in Germany). But, on the other hand, older people became dependent in economic terms and this encouraged ageist stereotypes of old age as a period of poverty and frailty. To some extent this view of older people as passive recipients of pensions, albeit deserving ones, lingers, although it is now the label “greedy oldies” often creeps in. Walker maintains that institutional ageism and a negative social construction of old age remains.

All welfare states originated, to some extent, in provision for old age and public pension systems. New Zealand was an early starter. A means-tested pension for people 65 years and older was introduced in 1898. A universal (not means-tested) superannuation from age 65 came in with the 1938 Social Security Act, which also lowered the age for the means-tested pension to 60. Retirement Income support now is the largest item of national social expenditures.

When there was compulsory retirement at the age of eligibility for pensions, the expectation was that older people would leave the labour force, exchange wages for pensions and disengage themselves from formal economic activity. So, suggests Walker, retirement operated as a process of social exclusion. This exclusion contributed to a popular perception of older people were politically, as well as economically, inactive. Age stereotypes, that portrayed older people as passive, acquiescent, and disinterested in social and political participation, were encouraged. At that time, however, there were fewer older people and they were less healthy than now.

Things began to change in the 1970s. Policy makers began to reject the welfare state consensus and to question the cost of population ageing, which was becoming clearer. Then, in the 1980s, came the rise of neoliberalism and more criticism of public welfare. Worries about the costs of pensions and long term care emerged. Rising affluence was bringing down the age of retirement and many countries had early retirement policies.  Neoliberal deflationary measures had led to unemployment and there was a (vain) hope that the places of retiring workers would be taken by the young unemployed whose numbers were growing rapidly. What happened was not job substitution but job destruction, given the costs of early retirement schemes. A ‘burden of ageing’ and ‘ageing crisis’ discourse developed among policy-makers and in many countries there were reductions in retirement income support. Much of the recent history of superannuation in New Zealand has been attempts to cut back on Muldoon’s generous National Superannuation of the late 1970s.

But something else was developing. Social movements of the 1970s – human rights, feminism, Maori sovereignty – involved older people. Better welfare services meant that people were not only surviving longer but, doing so in better health. The negative impacts of the changes in economic and political ideology had a mobilising effect and led to protests against cuts in pensions, health and social services. Policy makers in several countries, including New Zealand, have responded to this by setting up advisory boards on ageing. Non-governmental organizations, like Grey Power and Age Concern, have emerged to advocate for older people.

These new social movements of civil society emphasised human rights, participation and social inclusion and fiercely opposed all forms of age discrimination. As neoliberal “market-driven” policy took over, we saw the emergence of the ‘older consumer’ and the ‘silver economy’. Older people who are more affluent than their forebears, are asserting themselves as consumers and as active participants in many spheres of life. “Active ageing” has become the theme and has become part of policy. The thinking behind this new approach is expressed perfectly in the WHO dictum “years have been added to life now we must add life to years”. This is a long way from the perception of older people as deserving, but poor and dependent. But have we got rid of age discrimination?

[1] Walker, A. (2016) Population Ageing from a Global and Theoretical Perspective: European Lessons on Active Ageing. p. 47-64 in Moulaert, T. and  Garon, S. (Editors)(2016) Age-Friendly Cities and Communities in ternational Comparison Political Lessons, Scientific Avenues, and Democratic Issues. Springer International Publishing Switzerland.

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Friendly urban neighbourhoods for people with dementia – and others

Judith Davey

For 10/2/17

I have been doing some work lately on Age-Friendly Cities and Communities.  A sub-set of these are dementia-friendly environments. We have all heard about the likely increase in numbers of people with dementia as our population ages, but it is also clear that what might be good for this group will probably also be good for older people in general. An article in the Journal of Urban Design gave me a lot to think about and things to look out for as I walk around Wellington. [1]

To live at home successfully, people with dementia, not only need medical and social support but also outside environments where they can feel safe and comfortable. As the researchers say:

The spatial disorientation and short‐term memory problems experienced by the majority of older people with dementia can make each trip around the local neighbourhood a journey into the unknown. They are at great risk either of losing their way when they go out or of becoming housebound through a fear of becoming lost. Yet the social, psychological and physical benefits of confident and proficient use of the outdoor environment for people with dementia are numerous.

And the same probably goes for many of us!

The authors realised the necessity of seeking information directly from people with dementia. They interviewed people from this group, accompanied them on walks and analysed the characteristics of the local environment.

Some of the participants did lose their way on the walks, but some did not, mainly because they stayed in familiar territory and they had visual clues to help them. Losing their way happened most frequently at road crossings and junctions, when following a less familiar route, or when they lost concentration, for example when they were daydreaming or distracted by a loud noise. Participants were often startled by passing heavy vehicles or children shouting and especially by emergency vehicle sirens, causing them to become confused and disoriented. Excessive information and uneven paving were two additional causes of bewilderment. The researchers concluded that older people with dementia rely on the “legibility” of their local neighbourhoods. What does this mean?

Street layouts. Most participants showed a preference for short, narrow and gently winding streets rather than long, wide or straight streets. The former were more interesting, gave better sight lines and therefore were helpful in maintaining concentration. Streets on grid patterns had the potential to cause a loss of concentration and disorientation with too many cross roads and sharp blind corners.

Building form and style.  Participants found streets with varied architectural features more interesting than those with repetitive forms in buildings and street lay-out. Different shapes, features, colours and contrasts, such as varying roof lines, front doors, windows and gardens, were all useful tools for successful navigationt. Although participants were most likely to lose their way at road crossings and places with poor visual access, many also became disoriented on streets identical to neighbouring ones, with identical buildings and few distinguishing features.

People with dementia preferred vibrant, informal open spaces with plenty of activity, such as squares surrounded by shops, cafés and offices, and parks containing tennis courts, children’s play areas, boating ponds and so on. These were preferred to empty, open expanses of ground or formal green open spaces. The former provide interest and environmental cues which helped them to find their way around. They also present a more welcoming and safer environment.

Signage. Too many signs cause confusion. Where they are necessary they should contain simple, explicit information with realistic symbols. Participants preferred plain signs with large, dark lettering on a light background. Advertising and shop boards were considered to be extraneous and hazardous clutter. Signs perpendicular to the wall were considered very useful as they are visible from a distance. The post office sign is a particularly good example, being well established, familiar and encountered regularly.  What would be the New Zealand equivalent?

Environmental “cues”. The most useful environmental cues are practical and decorative items, such as clocks, hanging baskets and pot plants strategically placed at decision points and places where visual access ends. The types of landmarks which participants used included civic buildings, such as churches, libraries and town halls; distinctive structures, such as clocks and public art; places of activity, such as mixed‐use squares, parks and playgrounds; places or buildings of personal significance, such as a previous workplace, doctor’s surgery, a favourite cafe and so on. They could also include aesthetic features, such as attractive gardens, trees or planters and street furniture, including telephone and letter boxes, public seating and bus shelters. When such “clues” were encountered regularly they added to the “legibility” of the neighbourhood and were useful for wayfinding, particularly when located at important decision points.

When new developments are planned or existing areas regenerated, these design suggestion could usefully be incorporated. They would help to ameliorate the sense of isolation and anxiety experienced by many older people, with or without dementia, and people with other cognitive impairments, such learning difficulties, Down’s syndrome or brain damage. Other beneficiaries would be children and foreign visitors. An outdoor environment that people are able to confidently understand, navigate and use, regardless of age or circumstance, should be the ultimate goal of inclusive urban design.

[1] L Mitchell E Burton  & S Raman (2004) Dementia‐friendly cities: designing intelligible neighbourhoods for life. Journal of Urban Design  Volume 9, Issue 1, pages 89-101.


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New policy statement on the health of older people – the “Healthy Ageing Strategy”

Judith Davey


Drafts of the Health of Older People Strategy, an update of the 2002 document, have been around for a while and there have been numerous consultation initiatives, which you may have heard of. Fairly late in the piece the name was changed to the “Healthy Ageing Strategy (HAS)” – a change which Minister Sam Lotu-liga claims as his initiative in his foreword to the strategy document. He states that this name change recognises the diversity of older people and the aim to maximise health and wellbeing throughout people’s older years. I am not sure I quite see the logic in this, but the new strategy certainly does recognise diversity and takes a broad view on wellbeing – well beyond the usual narrow definitions of health as based on medical interventions and hospital services. It has a strong focus on prevention, wellness and support for independence. It emphasises equity and giving attention to the most vulnerable.

Looking wider
In the international sphere, New Zealand is a signatory to the World Health Global Strategy on Ageing and Health 2016-2020.  Among its objectives are developing age-friendly environments (more about that in later blogs), sustainable and equitable systems for care and a commitment to action on healthy ageing. WHO defines healthy ageing as “the process of developing and maintaining functional ability which enables wellbeing in older age”.

The Healthy Ageing Strategy links with the overall New Zealand Health Strategy, released in 2016, the Disability Strategy and the Positive Ageing Strategy. The latter may also be receiving a make-over this year, not before time, and could build on many of the actions proposed by HAS.

Another aspect of a wider view is the strategy’s emphasis on a life-course approach, recognising how influences from childhood and through adult life affect health outcomes in later life. These include our upbringing and how healthily we live – a strong form of prevention. Environmental factors – housing, workplaces, discrimination and the quality of family life are also important.

Achieving equity
WHO defines equity as “the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically or geographically” Persistent health inequities in New Zealand are recognised, affecting Maori, Pacific peoples, migrant and refugee communities, people with disabilities and mental health conditions and addictions, and people with low incomes. Achieving equity means understanding and removing barriers that prevent groups from experiencing equitable health outcomes, which will include enabling access to health services and acknowledging cultural preferences. Also important is enabling equal opportunities to raise capacities and functional abilities.

Action plan
The next step is to develop an implementation plan for work over the next ten years. This will involve both the health and social systems, as well as a wide variety of service providers, NGOs, communities and older people themselves.

The strategy sets out and prioritises actions, some to be achieved in the next two years, and nominates lead partners for implementation. Here are a few examples which caught my eye-

  • Promote the concept of age-friendly communities – led by Office for Seniors.
  • Increase the availability of strength and balance programmes in homes and community settings (oriented towards falls prevention) – led by ACC.
  • Review the Green Prescription programme and improve its use by older people – led by Ministry of Health.
  • Promote volunteering, networking and paid work among older people as a means to support their sense of wellbeing and social connection – led by Ministry of Social Development.
  • Support older people’s uptake of technologies for communication with health providers and their family and whanau (application in rural and remote areas specified) – led by DHBs.
  • Develop a range of strategies to improve recruitment and retention of those working in aged care – led by Ministry of Health.
  • Explore options for aged residential care facilities to become providers of a wider range of services for older people such as restorative care, including non-residents – led by DHBs.
  • Improve the support for informal carers, including various types of respite care, guidance and information and training – led by Ministry of Social Development.

A consummation devoutly to be wished, as Shakespeare wrote! Watch this space! The HAS is certainly broad and ambitious. I hope I have encouraged you to take a look, if you have not done so already. It has something for everybody and plenty of good intentions. We should wish it every success.

Download the Strategy

Foot note: Age Concern New Zealand proposed the name “Healthy Ageing Strategy” as part of their submission and feedback during the consultation process.

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Retirement – how has it changed?

Judith Davey


Going through my paper mountain recently, in the interests of decluttering, I found a free newsletter called “Women Today”, dated April 1977. Apart from the presentation – clearly back in the Gestetner age, when copies were churned by hand and ink was unevenly spread – the content gave a picture of retirement and retirement income support at the time. In 1977 National Superannuation (NS) started up, a taxable universal pension at age 60. A couple received 80% of the average wage and a single person 60% of the married pension. Within a year NS had become the most expensive item in the government budget and the cause of a large overseas borrowing programme.

“Women Today” recorded that this meant a couple would receive $76 a week gross and a single person $49. This meant an increase of $7.26 and $3.59, respectively, compared to the earlier Age Benefit. However, all was not rosy. The telephone and television concessions for older people were cut when weekly incomes reached $88 for couples and $63 for single people. One example suggested that a married couple who had $8 a week interest on their savings were being penalised as this meant they would lose their concessions. NAC (remember the domestic airline?) 30% “Golden Age” concessions, which were means tested (not sure how) were put back to age 65. Another drawback was that pensioners now had to file income tax returns because NS was taxable whereas the Age Benefit was not. The newsletter contains complaints that pensioners without extra income, especially single women, would not benefit from the new scheme. “These are people who have worked all their lives for very low wages, or widows who have brought up families only to be thrown on the financial scrap heap when their services to society are ended.” For sure, we now have very low rates of pensioner poverty in New Zealand, but there is still a minority who find government income support inadequate.

The history of retirement income policy since 1979 has been cutting back on the original terms of NS. Pension levels have varied in relation to wages; there have been attempts at targeting, through income tests; and the age of eligibility was raised from 60 to 65 in the years leading up to 2001, taking it back to where it was set in 1898. Suggestions of raising the “pension age” have been raised regularly ever since – we await developments given recent political change.

Another sign of the times was the assumption that women were married and probably did not have full-time jobs or careers. “Mrs Cameron” who had had six children, one of whom was still at Polytechnic, and an elderly mother who was demanding attention, now also had a husband, compulsorily retired at age 60. Leaving work had been a traumatic event for him but also caused some conflict and resentment at home. Mrs C “is making a conscious effort to involve her husband in the household’s decision-making process and yet at the same time being concerned that these matters are too trivial for his interest.”

In another example, both partners had left paid work. Again there was need for role adjustment. “When he started chiding me about things domestic, I told him I had managed the house for 40 years and I didn’t think it was necessary for him to take over now.”

A cartoon in the newsletter shows an unshaven older man stretched out on a reclining chair watching television, with a good supply of beer by his side. He is saying “Remember when I used to think I would age with dignity.”

These examples are put forward to show the need for retirement planning. This is still not yet as widespread as it ought to be, and certainly needs to take into account the needs of both partners.

An initiative which was well ahead of its time in “Women Today” was a call for retired people to become involved in early childhood education. Several Playcentres in Wellington were recorded as encouraging senior citizens’ clubs to visit, to contribute their time with the children and to help repair equipment. “Perhaps a short time reading books, or sitting talking to a small group of children, or just sitting, could be a worthwhile experience for a retired person with free time?”

“In Paekakariki, for example, they have just appointed their first Honorary Grandmother”.

It sounds like a win-win situation to me, and one which still needs some encouragement.

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Age Group Politics – do older people vote selfishly?

Judith Davey

One of the threats foreseen by those who subscribe to the disaster/burden perspective on population ageing is that older people will use their numbers as voters to dominate the political agenda.  Linked to this is the belief that people become more conservative as they age and will vote accordingly. How much truth is there in this?

We know a lot more about if people vote than how they vote. It is very clear that, in New Zealand and many similar countries, the proportion of people who vote increases with age. In recent general elections, around 95% of New Zealanders aged 65 plus have voted, compared to 61% of those aged 18 to 24 and around 80% of people in the intervening age groups. If older people are voting selfishly, then younger people need to get out to vote to counteract any selfish tendencies!

According to research by political scientists there is limited support for the idea that voters necessarily become more conservative as they age.  Instead, most argue that much of the difference between older and younger voters is linked to cohort effects. People who grew up during wars and depressions, with an experience of deprivation, are more likely to be conservative than those who grew up during a post-WWII affluence. Changes in electoral systems can also affect voting patterns, for example, MMP gives a potential voice to smaller parties.

Then there are the platforms of political parties to consider. Are they addressing the concerns and needs of older people? Although there may be concerns about retirement income support and access to health services, beyond this the political interests of older people are as varied as in other sections of the electorate. Older citizens do not vote only according to what matters to them as seniors; they are clearly concerned about the future of their children and grand-children.

In some countries political parties have emerged to represent the interests of older people. Their fortunes will wax and wane, so it is difficult to find the most recent information, and none seem to have gained much political influence. Here are some examples:

In 2006, after failure in five previous elections, the Israeli Retired Persons Party garnered enough votes to enter the Knesset (parliament). It won seven seats out of 120 members, and became part of the ruling coalition, heading the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Older Persons.

In Germany, “Die Grauen” (“the Greys”/Grey Panthers) were a small party, founded by a former Green member of parliament and focusing on the rights of senior citizens.  Despite contesting many elections, the Greys could never pass the 5% threshold for representation in state, federal or European elections, although a few Greys were elected to municipal councils. The party existed from 1989 until 2008. Other German political parties have senior sections – “social democrats 60 plus”, “Green seniors”.

In the late 1990s there were two senior parties (Union 55+ and General Senior Alliance) in the Dutch parliament. They had a few seats (2 or 3) but they were not very successful because of dissention between them. A new party – 50 PLUS – was founded in 2009 and competed in the 2011 provincial elections, obtaining 9 seats in the States-Provincial and one seat in the Senate.

The Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia, also known by the acronym DeSUS, was founded in 1991 and won parliamentary seats from 1992. In the 2008 elections the party won 7.4% of votes, 7 out of 90 seats and joined the coalition government. 

The “Gray Panthers” – a very well-known US pressure group, are a very good example of having a wider political agenda than simply to secure more rights and resources for older people. In the 1970s, one of their campaigns was Seniors against a Fearful Environment, which emphasized their solidarity with other disadvantaged groups. It supported Grandmothers against the war (in the Middle East). Eighteen members were arrested for allegedly blocking pedestrian traffic when they tried to enlist to replace young people serving in Iraq.

The Gray Panthers saw themselves as a multigenerational movement; their social vision­ included intergenerational housing and community-run clinics, emphasising preventive care. Shared housing ­”congregate living arrangements” in which people from a span of generations came together – ­was one of the Gray Panthers’ most ambitious concepts. They fought hard for a national health care system, nursing home reform, an end to age discrimination in employment, and better services to help older people to lead more independent lives. The present-day Gray Panthers continue to be at the forefront of advocacy against ageism and for social justice at the local, national, and international levels.

What do we have in NZ? On June 7, 2016, the New Zealand Herald headlined “New political party represents older New Zealanders”. According to this article, the New Zealand Seniors Party planned to register as an official party to run candidates in the 2017 election. Some of the party’s key platform issues appear narrow – fighting the “unfair” deduction of overseas pensions, suspending immigration (linked to hospital waiting lists) and a ‘Living Wage’ pension for seniors. A Grey Power response was skeptical – maintaining that this was a “one-issue party” to which they would not be aligned. However, looking in more detail at the policies of the New Zealand Seniors Party, as set out on their web site, they seem to have a wider platform, with wide-ranging views on health, education, employment and housing.

“The NZ Seniors Party exists for the common good of all New Zealanders……but with an emphasis on the needs of seniors. All will get old eventually and what is good for seniors now is good for those that follow.”

Next year we will see how they go.

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Older Men as Grandfathers- Maori Grandfathers in Aotearoa

Judith Davey


 The book I mentioned in my last blog – Grandfathers: Global Perspectives – is now published and our chapter – Maori Grandfathers in Aotearoa (New Zealand) – sits alongside contributions from Denmark, Finland, South Africa, Singapore, Australia, the UK and USA.[1] This is a summary of the chapter which discusses the role of Maori grandfathers and how it is changing.

Traditional Maori views of family and grandparenting[2]

Traditional stories discuss the important role elders hold in the life of their grandchildren. Maui, the famous ancestor, was raised by his grandfather, Tamanui Te Ra (the Sun). Maori kinship terms embody continuity over generations.  The word for grandchildren – mokopuna – literally means a reflection of the ancestors, through whakapapa (lineage). Mokopuna are likened to the soft new shoots of the harakeke (flax), which are protected by the outer layers, i.e. preceding generations. Tupuna – grandparent or ancestor – means “grown from”, i.e. a person from whom we grew. Koro (or koroua) refers to grandfathers and the men in the grandfathers’ generation. Maori proverbs frequently refer to the complementary contributions of older and younger generations.

Whānau is the key Maori social and cultural unit and membership of whānau entails obligations, including whānaungatanga (belonging, supporting and working together as kin). Grandparents, and older people in general, have significant roles as decision-makers and leaders in the whānau, as role models, preservers of good relationships, maintainers and guardians of whānau knowledge and identity. Strong traditional whānau exhibit shared parenting, strong relationships between the generations and the involvement of grandparents in decisions about their grandchildren. Grandparents help grandchildren with their self-image, linguistic competence and special skills, for example grandfathers may impart traditional skills in food gathering. Everyday care and nurturing of children took place in the whānau.

The traditional role of Maori grandparents is further illustrated in the concept of whangai, which is associated with the idea of adoption, although not necessarily legal adoption. Whangai means to feed, in this context to feed and nurture. Traditionally, a couple’s first child was often taken and brought up by grandparents, partly to care for them in old age. Whangai still occurs, not only for traditional reasons. Just as in society in general, grandparents may be raising grandchildren considered to be ‘at risk’ or lack parenting for some reason.

 Maori men as grandfathers

As part of the research, we undertook informal discussions with Maori grandfathers, asking how they saw their role.  Several themes arose from these discussions.

  • Pride in whānau and tribal heritage, acknowledging key male ancestors

The Maori grandfathers emphasised the importance of continuity over the generations; maintaining the role of providing protection to succeeding generations and passing on Maori and whānau knowledge. They spoke about the lessons they had learnt from their grandfathers and previous generations. “My koro taught me a love of the land and the people”.

  • The challenge of reclaiming Maori language and knowledge

Most of the grandfathers were brought up at a time when many older Maori believed that the way forward for young people was through Pakeha education. Hence speaking Maori to children and grand-children was discouraged even though the old people might speak it amongst themselves.  “Being brought up by my grandmother and grandfather, they wanted us to learn the English way because they saw that was the future – you could get a job and an education.” In some cases it has only been in their 40s and 50s that the men became proud of being Maori and have stood forward in leadership roles.

  • Keeping whānau together and keeping a watchful protective eye over the generations

The grandfathers acknowledged that their role was to protect children and promote family cohesion. “I have kept my family all together in the same way that he (his grandfather) did. Tried to keep them up the river on the (tribal) land.” When a daughter had a partner who was worrisome, one kept a close eye on the son-in-law’s behaviour and tried to mentor him.

Change and Diversity

Traditional roles can be harder to maintain in the modern context, for economic and social reasons, with the added influences of urbanisation and migration and the reduction of generations living together. Maori families are undergoing processes of transformation and redefinition, becoming more diverse in size, structure and roles.

Differences relating to rights, responsibilities and tolerated behaviours are significant issues for some grandparents. There may be differences in parenting styles between grandparents and the grandchildren’s parents (and their partners), leading to tensions and a perceived lack of respect for grandparents. There are sometimes real or implied threats about access to grandchildren when relationships between the parents are strained or broken. Where grandparents step in, following the Maori tradition of shared care, they may come into conflict with legal and policy measures. Grandparents raising grandchildren as whangai may not be eligible for government benefits that could come through a more formal arrangement.

The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act (1989) was strongly influenced by traditional Maori concepts of whānau and collective responsibility for children. It mandated the extended family/whānau as the preferred placement for children in need of care and protection. This role more often than not falls to grandparents. So, contemporary grandparenting among Maori still encompasses the roles of nurturing, caring for and protecting grandchildren as well as passing on cultural knowledge and identity. Grandfathers have an important role in this.


[1] Buchanan, Ann, and Rotkirch, Anna (Eds.) (2016) Grandfathers: Global Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan Studies in Family and Intimate Life. Palgrave McMillan U.K.

[2] Useful references for this section include:
Edwards W. (2010) Taupaenui: Maori Positive Ageing. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North
Smith, C. (2010) The Health and Wellbeing of Maori Grandparents raising Mokopuna. Report to the Health Research Council for the Erihapeti Rehu-Murchie Postdoctoral Fellowship.
Walker, T. (2006) Whanau is whanau. Blue Skies Report No.8/06. Families Commission: Wellington.


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