New Zealand’s Retirement Income ‘Eco-system’ – 1 Government contribution

Judith Davey


When we think of retirement income policy we usually think first of New Zealand Superannuation (NZS). For many older people this is their main or only source of income. But, when you come to think of it, NZS is only one part of a much wider system of policy settings and income sources which supports our wellbeing in old age. The Commission for Financial Capability (CFFC), in their 2016 Review of Retirement Income Policy called this an eco-system- “meaning ‘a complex network’ or ‘interdependent system’” [1] .

“The all-dominating subject of age of eligibility (for NZS) cannot be addressed without also acknowledging the interdependencies: the ageing workforce, the role of Kiwi Saver, decumulation options, and more.”

The elements of this system interact with each other and with underlying trends and attitudes. They all contribute to a central objective, which is to ensure that all older New Zealanders have an adequate retirement income: that is, sufficient income to ensure that they are able to “belong to and participate in the community” (Royal Commission on Social Security 1972). Adequacy relates not just to the level of NZS and its future sustainability, but also to supplementary payments, health and housing and more. Prolonged workforce participation and various means of self-funding are part of the interdependent system which calls out for a unified policy approach [2].

In this blog I will look at government policies which support retirement incomes. Later I will cover what individuals can do for themselves. These two sources of support interact to form the eco-system.

1. Government’s Contribution

New Zealand Superannuation
This produces a major demand on central government’s budget. With the ageing of the population, if there is no change in policy settings, the cost of NZS will increase to levels which raise concerns – its cost will almost double by 2036.

What can be done to increase the sustainability of NZS?
The options include raising taxes, cutting government expenditure and borrowing – all traditional responses when governments need more money. But also:-

• The New Zealand Superannuation Fund (NZSF) can smooth the cost of NZS across the generations and improve its sustainability. The intention is to draw down the fund from 2035-36. The 2017 Labour-led government has resumed contributions to the NZSF after the National-led government stopped them during its term of office.

• Raising the age of eligibility. Arguments for this are not solely based on fiscal savings but also on increased life expectancy and the potential for extending workforce participation.

• Adjustment of residence requirements. Many OECD countries have lengthened the residence requirement for pension receipt.

• Income and/or asset testing NZS. The administration and compliance costs would be significant and avoidance schemes are likely to spring up. Income testing would also discourage workforce participation beyond the age of eligibility.

• Deferring receipt of NZS for a higher pension. This policy would be administratively complex and seems not be actively under consideration.

Other government spending on retirement incomes

Several other government programmes effectively contribute to the adequacy of retirement incomes.

Health Services
Over a third of health spending goes on the 65 plus age group and increased numbers of older people will raise health expenditure in the future, provided there is no reduction in service provision or subsidies. Increased health costs also relate to staff salaries and higher expectations of new medications, treatments and technology, not just ageing. Public hospital treatment is free and there are subsidies for GP consultations. Long waiting lists suggest that there may be scope for self-funding through medical insurance, which in the past has been encouraged by tax policies . There are also private health costs for dental, audiology and optometry services, and part payment for prescriptions, so health costs are already shared.

Fewer older people are now in residential care, albeit at higher levels of dependency. But, if the policy of “ageing in place” continues, then home care and services delivered in the community will become more important and are already under-resourced, even though they cost over $2 billion a year. Here again, there is potential for self-funding, and income-testing policies could be developed.

The Accommodation Supplement (AS) was designed to reduce the impact of housing costs on low incomes, so it may be a useful addition to retirement income. Its adequacy has been questioned, given the rise in rents. The public housing stock is historically low and private landlords do not fill the gap. Greater poverty among older renters has been predicted. Currently only about 5% of superannuitants also receive AS, but this still costs around $100 million per annum.

Poor housing has a negative effect on physical and mental health outcomes. Older renters may therefore generate higher health service costs.

Fuel poverty has become an increasing concern. The current government has introduced the Winter Energy Payment for superannuitants, worth $450 for a single person and $700 for a couple. This cash grant should add to the wellbeing of retirees and result in some savings in health care costs.

Other government-funded support for older people includes the Super Gold Card, the Total Mobility Scheme, Disability Allowances, targeted rent and rates rebates and some subsidies for hearing and other aides. It is not difficult to arrive at an annual cost of another $1 billion.

Kiwi Saver (KS)
Although not directly support to older people, the government contributes to Kiwi Saver through tax relief (formerly also through a grant of $1000 upon enrolment). And KS has the potential to deliver substantial funds to contributors on maturity.

The purpose of the Kiwi Saver Act 2006 is to encourage long-term savings to maintain standards of living in retirement. Both employees and employers contribute to individual accounts, held by registered KS providers. Funds mature at age 65, but can be withdrawn as a deposit for a first home and there is a provision for financial hardship withdrawals.

Compulsory enrollment in KS would ensure additional retirement income for all workers. But there are arguments against compulsion. For low income earners, especially those with dependent children, KS contributions could be a financial burden. Others may prefer to manage their own savings portfolio, or to adjust their savings to life-cycle flows of income and expenditure.

When Kiwi Saver accounts mature, people have the choice of withdrawing all their funds; leaving them in their accounts as investments; or shifting money into other forms of savings, such as term deposits in banks. In future KS may become the main source of retirement income, with NZS and KS interacting in a two tier system, with NZS as a “safety net”.

[1] CFFC Review (2016) Review of Retirement Income Policies, Commission for Financial Capability, Wellington.

[2] A Round Table discussion on the topic was held in June 2017 at Victoria University was the impetus for a paper by Judith Davey and Bob Stephens published in the Policy Quarterly, in August 2018. Cost estimates come from a working paper – Turning Silver into Gold: Policies for an ageing population – by M. Claire Dale, Retirement Policy and Research Centre, University of Auckland, 2015.

[3] In 2010 only 23% of people aged 65 plus were covered by health insurance.

Posted in Income, assets and living standards | 3 Comments

Retirement Villages – looking at their economic impact

On 25th July, at an event in the Beehive, the Retirement Villages Association (RVA) launched a report commissioned through Price Waterhouse Coopers Consulting (PWC), entitled Retirement village contribution to housing, employment, and GDP in New Zealand. Your blogger was there; see below, with Pete Matcham from Grey Power and Mike Reid from Local Government New Zealand.

The purpose of the report (available at is to estimate the size of the retirement village industry in New Zealand and consider its contribution to the national economy. It does not quantify the social or health benefits of retirement village living for residents (a report on this may come later).

Nevertheless the results are impressive and significant for policy. According to the Registrar for Retirement Villages (part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment) there are approximately 400 retirement villages in New Zealand. The 2016 figures show that there were 32,835 retirement village units, including 5,516 own-your-own (which are not part of the RVA database[1]). This includes independent living units and serviced apartments. The average number of units per village is 75, but their size varies from 10 or fewer units to more than 250. Some 15,000 new units are planned for the next 7-8 years.

The growth in the retirement village industry has been rapid. Between 2009 and 2016 the number of units (license to occupy and own-your-own) grew by 53%.

How does this growth relate to population ageing?

The report uses the 75 plus age group as its target market, although the minimum age for entry can be lower, depending on the village.  It presents figures to show that the percentage growth in retirement village units has outpaced the percentage growth in the 75+ age group. The increasing “penetration rates” (percentage of a population group who currently live in retirement villages) show the increasing demand for RV units. Between 2012 and 2017 the penetration rate has increased from 9.4% to 12.6%.

How do RVs help with housing supply?

A key message from the RVA report is that villages help to “ease demand on the residential housing market……. assisting with the housing supply shortage”. The current build rate of retirement villages is faster than the overall level of housing stock growth. “As new village units are constructed, this opens up the broader housing market and frees up larger homes for purchase or rent by families as older people move on”.

Other ways of alleviating housing shortages include increased land use intensity and higher housing density. Retirement villages do better in this area compared with other housing developments, especially mid to large-sized retirement villages in large centres, notably Auckland. The higher price of land in Auckland provides an incentive to build at higher densities. Some of the larger Auckland-based retirement villages have up to six storeys. This can free up land for redevelopment, building multi-bedroom family homes, where previously there were only single occupants.

How do RVs create employment?

The report estimates that the retirement village sector employs approximately 19,000 people to support day-to-day operations. “On average, for every 100 retirement village units, there are 64 staff to support operations”. “Retirement villages create jobs in food preparation, laundry, cleaning services, repairs and maintenance, activities coordination, transport and travel, and business management”. “By 2023, approximately 29,000 people will be directly employed by retirement villages in New Zealand to support their day-to-day operations”. In addition, thousands of jobs are supported through the construction of new villages.

How do RVs contribute to the economy?

Using data from the RVA, PWC estimate that day-to-day operations in the retirement village sector add around $1.1 billion to New Zealand’s GDP per annum, accounting for roughly 0.4% of national GDP. Given the forecast retirement village construction plans they will contribute $480 million value added every year.

An example of the value added impact of a 250 unit retirement village brings the report’s conclusions into perspective (p.29). It may contribute $21.4 million directly to the economy:

  • $4.8 million in engineering, quantity surveying, architectural, and other technical and business professional services;
  • $13.9 million in building and other trades, building management, building materials supply, subdivision and site preparation;
  • $1.8 million in civil works including site drainage and road construction;
  • $0.9 million in furniture, fittings, and equipment retailing and installation.

For a long time there have been calls (including mine) for a greater variety of housing options for older people. Retirement villages are clearly a significant addition to the housing sector in New Zealand and innovative approaches are being developed, including rental and “affordable” (lower capital required starts) units in villages.

[1] The RVA represents more than 95% of the retirement village industry by unit number. The data in the report relate to 213 villages. In New Zealand 81% of villages are owned by companies and 19% are not-for-profit. The comparable figures for Australia are 64% and 36%, respectively.

Posted in Housing and community environment | 1 Comment

Enter the Puffin* – A new pedestrian crossing

Judith Davey


One of the major concerns for older pedestrians in urban areas is the time allowed for crossing roads at traffic lights. I suffer from this myself. Unless I am standing waiting at the kerb for the “green man” to appear, I rarely have enough time to get across before he turns into a flashing “red man”. Even being a few paces away from the crossing does not give me time to reach the other side in the green phase. And I consider myself reasonably sprightly.

Not being able to cross easily in the time given will surely cause anxiety for pedestrians who are slow walkers – because of mobility problems, because they are using walkers, wheelchairs or prams or escorting others. And anxiety could lead to falls and accidents. Injuries and deaths from road accidents are high among older pedestrians.

How can longer and safer crossing times be balanced against maintaining rapid traffic flows? This issue came up when I was reviewing global literature on age-friendly cities.

One suggestion I came across was the idea that people who needed more time could swipe a card at the crossing to give themselves more time. And all over 65s have a Super Gold Card. “Swiping” cards has become part of everyday life.

traffic lightI raised this issue at a recent awards ceremony for Living Streets, a pedestrian advocacy group and was informed by its president that a relevant innovation was already in operation in New Zealand – the Puffin crossing – although this is intended to be mid-block, not at intersections.

The first point is that the pedestrian control panel is on the same side as the user, not across the road on the opposite traffic light.

This means that the pedestrian can see the oncoming traffic while waiting for the signal to cross. And having the lights closer to the user assists visually impaired people who could have difficulty seeing the signal from across the carriageway

After a request to cross (by pressing the button), a kerb side detector monitors the pedestrian’s presence at the crossing. The “green man” pedestrian phase is then started (after allowing the prescribed phase for vehicles to pass – the “pre-timed Maximum Facility).

An on-crossing detector ensures that the signal for vehicles remains red until pedestrians have finished crossing (within practical limits). This is intending to ensure that users of all abilities can safely complete crossing without the signal changing.

Kerb-side Detectors


On-road crossing Detectors


These crossings are now used around the world. In Britain their use is endorsed by the UK Department for Transport. They have been shown to improve compliance by pedestrians and vehicles and to reduce accidents. In New Zealand they can be found in Hutt City, Dunedin and Queenstown. The crossings are fairly low cost – $9,000 per crossing to upgrade including kerb‐side and on‐road detectors and have low maintenance requirements.

How about it?

[*] PUFFIN stands for Pedestrian User Friendly Intelligent signalised pedestrian crossing

[2] Illustrations are from a presentation by Holly Attwell of the Road Engineering Association of Asia and Australasia (REAAA). Videos of Puffin Crossings can be seen at –

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Yes – Older people blog and it is good for them*


Judith Davey

Rachel McAlpine, a well-known New Zealand author and poet, and myself, are both bloggers and both would admit to being “older”. Rachel had been wondering about older bloggers, a community which she says is “pretty well hidden from the rest of the world”. Most of the research on the “blogosphere” is related to business or professional blogs and has a commercial motive. But, could personal blogging be a valuable tool to provide mental, emotional, and social stimulation for older people, and, for some, a way to reduce social isolation?

This was the rationale for the Older Bloggers’ survey, launched by Rachel, with help from me. We used Survey Monkey and promoted it mainly through Rachel’s blog “Write into Life” (she has hundreds of followers and I have hardly any). By the time it was closed, in late June, there were 120 responses from a wide geographical range – half from the USA, followed by the UK, with New Zealand third; 11 countries in all.

“Older” was self-defined and 16% of the respondents were under 55 years. Nearly three-quarters were in the 55 to 74 age group and 11% 75 or older (only one 85 plus). Does this represent the “baby-boom” generation? Or perhaps the first cohort to reach middle-age with experience of communication via computers and the internet?

The questionnaire asked about technicalities – time spent blogging or following others, difficulties with publication, etc. These results will be useful for education and service provision. But more relevant for us is why people blog and what they feel are the benefits.

Why do you blog?
Respondents were asked to choose up to three reasons from a long list. Interestingly, the most frequently responses were personal – “to express my creativity”; “I just enjoy it.” Comments along these lines included:

Mostly I just feel I need to get my thoughts into words, and if someone likes what I write, that’s a bonus.

It allows me a reason to dig deep with research on something I’m interested in.

I started out writing a journal of our travels because I didn’t want to forget a special part of our retirement.

Blogging is about keeping ME inspired. It provides the impetus to stay engaged, keep setting goals, keeps feeding my curiosity. I didn’t want my days to drift aimlessly into one another.

Some people mentioned psychological benefits from blogging:

Blogging keeps one’s mind active in old age, hopefully delaying age-related dementia.

Good therapy to write about my life.

I live alone, but I’m not lonely

Respondents wanted to share their knowledge and passions; their stories; to entertain or to inspire others. Some to teach:

I hear so many complain about helping their parents with their phones/tablets. I wanted to create a “safe” place to share my love of mobile devices. Where anyone felt they could learn and not have to be made to feel dumb by their kids or grandchildren.

I started to share my experience of depression, in the hope that it would help others, and mental health is still a core topic for me.

I originally started writing from a more traditional view of ‘living sustainably’ and noticed how tricky I found it to change my habits and thought it might be helpful to share this so that others can see that it is not easy but we should try anyway, and that every change makes a difference.

To connect with other (like-minded) people was also an important reason, often starting with family or friends.

Historically I began to keep in touch with friends and family. Blogging has brought far more friends and taken me down byways I would never otherwise have travelled.

Sharing my letters to my mother with my family and a regular letter to an old friend who lives far away. I have made new friends this way

Started out as a diary for myself, friends and family. Became far more enjoyable when I started to treat it as a social network.

The theme of meeting new people through blogging was very common. Often these became friends and sometimes the respondents met them in person.

A further question asked “What feelings do you get from the experience of publishing, reading, and commenting on blogs?” Respondents were asked to respond using a five-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

blog table.JPG

The vast majority agreed on the personal benefits of blogging – giving satisfaction and happiness, and over half agreed that it helped them to feel that they were not alone – apparently lessening feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

This was also a common “side benefit” of blogging – respondents were asked whether they agreed with statements about what these effects might be.

blog 2

Overall benefits

Concluding comments were very positive about the benefits of blogging:

It makes me think about how happy I am and what I might change.

Blogging improves “mindfulness”/self-awareness.

Blogging helps me meet new people worlds apart. Blogging helps me continue to seek out new ideas and remain a life-long learner.

Of course, people who responded to the Older Bloggers’ survey were actively engaged in blogging, so they were likely to be positive. But I think we learned enough to assert that blogging has the potential to benefit older people and should be encouraged.



[1] Blog as a noun – a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.

As a verb – to add new material to or regularly update a blog.

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Older People and Drugs – legal and illegal 2. Legal drug use and its consequences

Judith Davey


I did not mention alcohol in my previous post on drugs. I looked at this in a blog about a year ago, quoting the 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey (Older People and Alcohol in New Zealand, July 2017). This showed high levels of use, especially among 55 to 64-year-olds. The majority of older men and women drink safely. But, given their greater vulnerability to the physical effects of alcohol, their greater risk of chronic medical conditions and use of medicines incompatible with alcohol, there are still hazards and, in their more recent report, the Royal College of Psychiatrists questions whether hazardous drinking thresholds should be lower for older people.

As with illicit drug users, some older people fall into the ‘Early-onset’ problem drinkers category. These have been drinking harmfully for much of their adult lives, and continue to do so. Although I do not have any concrete evidence, it is possible that fewer older people actually start illicit drug use in their later years, but more may start to drink alcohol much more heavily, for reasons often associated with grief and loss, anxiety, depression, boredom, isolation, loneliness and chronic pain.

An issue with alcohol is its use in social environments. The RCP cover it in their report with an interesting conclusion -“Prevention of alcohol misuse needs to be balanced carefully against the role played by alcohol in maintaining social cohesion among older people.” Older people drink to be social, to enhance social situations or special occasions, and this may be beneficial for wellbeing and participation. How to find a happy medium?

The link between alcohol use and health is important. Apart from obvious effects such as intoxication, a wide range of health conditions have been linked to drinking, including liver disease, pancreatitis, cancer, stroke and high blood pressure. Some of these may result from the cumulative effects of a lifetime of alcohol use. For the baby boom group (ages 50-69) alcohol rose from 16th to 5th among risk factors for years of life lost to disability in England between 1990 and 2013.[1]

Prescribed drugs

Which brings me to the issue of prescribed drugs. In England and Wales, the number of deaths related to opioids (used for pain relief and including drugs containing codeine and morphine) rose by 192% for people aged 50-69, as against 40% for people aged 30−39 over the last ten years. There was also a, less striking, rise for poisoning from cocaine, amphetamines and benzodiazepines. Legal amphetamines are used for weight loss and to treat ADHD. Benzodiazepines are prescribed as sleeping pills, muscle relaxants, and to help treat anxiety and epilepsy . Repeat prescribing of benzodiazepines is a common problem encountered in general practice. Misuse is associated with multiple risks, including falls and road traffic accidents. Dependence can lead to anxiety, depression and cognitive impairment.

Analgesics (a broad term for a variety of pain killers) can be either prescribed or over-the-counter medicines and are therefore fairly easily available – use is especially high for combatting back pain.  Their misuse includes people taking too-high doses; ‘borrowing’ from friends or relatives; combining them with alcohol and taking them over a very long period, resulting in physical and psychological dependence.

But is this abuse, or is it that pain is not being properly treated? How should health services react? The RCP report concludes that substance misuse in older adults constitutes a significant challenge to both public health and existing services. Addressing the problem will require raising public, professional and political awareness.  Drug use, whether legal or illegal, is another of those “lifestyle” factors which can damage wellbeing in later life, like smoking, poor eating habits and lack of exercise. Am I being too optimistic by suggestions that it may be easier to tackle?

I give the last word to the RCP. They suggest that the ideal approach is supportive, non-confrontational, and flexible.  Treatment must be sensitive to gender, given physiological differences in the metabolism of alcohol and other drugs between men and women. Cultural differences must also be taken into consideration, and there should be a focus on client social skills and social environments.

“Diverse approaches are required to minimise the health, social and economic consequences for a population of “baby boomers” who have the fastest increase in rates of substance misuse in the population. These include raising awareness, limiting availability of, and access to, substances, and improving access to care. Approaches to treatment and rehabilitation need to be tailored and adapted from those found to be effective in younger people, and development of novel approaches need to be prioritised.”


[1] Royal College of Psychiatrists  (2018) Our Invisible Addicts, 2nd edition. College Report CR211, London.  Smoking remains the top risk factor in this age group


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Older People and Drugs – legal and illegal 1. Illicit drug use and its consequences

Judith Davey

It is well known that how we live our lives has a profound effect on how well we age and our wellbeing in later life. It is not just a case of what we do when we reach our sixties. I often wonder what young people are doing to their hearing when the sound at rock concerts can be palpably felt on the body; when exceedingly loud music is pumped directly into the ears through headphones. Let’s hope that advances in hearing aid technology keep up – both in efficacy and affordability. But that may be sour grapes on the part of an ageing kill-joy and, anyhow, it is not what I want to talk about in this and the following blog. I want to start with illicit drug use.

For those who can remember that far back in drug use history – in the 60s the fashion was LSD, in the 70s (and ongoing) cannabis, in the 80s and 90s Ecstasy, then “party pills” and now methamphetamine/P. This is not an exhaustive list, but it illustrates that we have had significant levels of illegal substance use for many decades.

Some sources suggest that at one stage New Zealand had the highest per capita rate of heroin use in the world and we may now top the world for marijuana use. A 2015 Global Drug Study found that, in the previous 12 months, more Kiwi respondents had smoked pot (32.5 percent) than tobacco (30.1 percent).

So the length of time that this smorgasbord of drugs has been around means that users are now reaching their fifties and beyond. A report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) in the UK in March of this year concluded that the proportion of older people with substance misuse is rising more rapidly than can be explained by the rise in the proportion of older people in the UK[1]. And the “baby boomer” population, who are all now aged over 50 is at the highest risk of rising substance misuse in the older population. These are the people who may have participated in and enjoyed the successive fashions for illicit drugs, which I mentioned at the beginning, so they could be exhibiting cumulative effects in the same way that earlier tobacco smoking can have long-lasting consequences. The RCP further conclude that the misuse of illicit drugs such as cannabis and amphetamines and prescription painkillers is a growing public health problem. And substance misuse in older people is associated with reduced life expectancy and accelerated ageing, which is further compounded by socio-economic deprivation and chronic mental and physical health problems.

The older heroin addict

The RCP reports that drug treatment services in the UK have increasing numbers of patients who are being maintained on opioid substitution treatment (to counter heroin addiction) into their 50s and beyond. It was once believed that illicit drug users ‘matured’ out of their drug use, but there is evidence that older heroin users do not reduce their use as they age.  Older people with a history of heroin dependence have poorer physical health and social functioning than their non-dependent peers and show high levels of depression, PTSD, anxiety, arthritis and hypertension, not to mention liver disease, through hepatitis C infection.

This may be an extreme result, but many years of illicit drug use may leave older people with poor physical health, reduced mobility and limited social support. Death rates in older people with substance misuse are higher than in the general older population.

This situation results in increased demands on a variety of services such as older people’s mental health, primary and social care, acute hospital services and help from the voluntary sector, not to mention criminal justice for continuing users. Often staff in these settings have little specialist knowledge of how to deal with the older people involved. Older people, with ongoing problems related to drug use have distinctive and varied  needs, requiring diverse responses from services. Hearing their voices and encouraging close links between health and social care services, as well as family and carers, will be needed.

It may also be difficult to place ageing drug users in mainstream residential care. Some countries (e.g. Denmark, Germany, Netherlands) have developed specialised nursing homes and accommodation services for this group, but there are concerns that this process may introduce stigmatisation and increase social exclusion.

But then there are the legal drugs – alcohol, prescription and over-the-counter remedies. How much of a problem are they in our ageing society? Next time……


[1] Royal College of Psychiatrists  (2018) Our Invisible Addicts, 2nd edition.

College Report CR211, London. The report also involved   the Royal College of

General Practitioners and the British Geriatrics Society. It follows on an earlier report published in 2011.


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It matters what we call older people

Judith Davey


I once asked my students for examples of epithets used for older people. I got the usual: oldies, grey-hairs, wrinklies, geriatrics. And a new one, apparently from the USA – “geezers”. None were complimentary, but none as bad as one I heard from a government official once – “pre-dead”.

There has been ambivalence about ageing for millennia. On the positive side, throughout time leaders have been greeted with “Long Live  X!” The Old Testament is full of statements in which long life is seen as a reward from God.

The fear of the Lord prolongs days: but the years of the wicked shall be shortened (Proverbs 10:27).

A grey head is a crown of glory; It is found in the way of righteousness (Proverbs 16:31).

But Shakespeare, in the “Seven Ages of Man” speech[1], is not complimentary about old age. The sixth age is “the lean and slippered pantaloons…. his big manly voice turning again toward childish treble”. And the last scene of all “Is second childishness and mere oblivion. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

I like the Grimms’ story quoted by Simone de Beauvoir in The Coming of Age (1970, p. 135).

God set 30 years as the lifetime for man and animals. The ass, dog and monkey wanted this reduced to, respectively, 18, 12 and 10 years. Man asked for longer – so he was given 30 years as a Man; 18 as an ass, carrying burdens and feeding others; 12 as a dog, growling; and 10 as a monkey, without wits, making children laugh (adding up to 70).[2]

Nowadays, there is still ambivalence. “Old” can be a term of endearment – “good old so and so” we often say.  But “dirty old man” is not complimentary and “elderly” is demeaning, assuming frailty and inactivity.

Paul Spoonley, interviewed on RNZs “Nine to Noon” programme on 19th June agreed. He talked about much longer lives and the increasing prospect of living to 100 years and beyond. On this basis the sixties decade is “middle aged” – 75 is the new 65. Are we applying “elderly” to an age group spanning 35 years or more, and two generations?  The Kapiti Observer of June 14th, under the heading: “Should we ban the E word?” quotes Spoonley and gives examples of people in their sixties being described as “elderly”.

So “elderly” is roundly condemned– perhaps only to be used, if at all, for the very frail and dependent. So I was surprised to hear that a model law for ” The Protection Of The Elderly “ drafted by the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies International Human Rights Clinic, dated  2012, was up for discussion at an event is to be held in Wellington in August. This is called, “Positive Ageing Strategy and a Constitution for older New Zealanders; Informing the discussion,” clearly linked to the consultations, led by the Office for Seniors, to update the 2001 Positive Ageing Strategy.

I read this draft law and, while it can be applauded for its aim to promote respect and appreciation for the participation of older adults in the community; to protect their rights and interests and provide them with the support necessary to sustain the quality of life and dignity; older people are consistently referred to as “the elderly” and frequently their autonomy and ability to choose does not appear paramount. “The family” is given the main responsibility for care and support, with the state coming in only when this is not possible. Further examples –

18.3. The State shall have the duty to take measures to carry out cultural, sports and recreational activities of a public nature that are suited to the elderly in order to enrich their cultural life.  

Who decides what is “suited”? Where does it say that older people should make their own choices?

18.8.1. Implementing a policy to encourage employers and the public, in general, to understand the importance of employing the elderly, to stabilize employment, and to find ways of meeting problems arising from the impact of age on employment.

Yes, but ideally on terms set by the older people themselves, giving them a strong say in working conditions. We shall see how this discussion progresses.

One of the first blogs I wrote for Age Concern asked –What’s special about human rights for older people? The United Nations has conventions protecting the rights of population groups – women, children, refugees, prisoners, people with disabilities. But nothing specifically covers the rights of older people. Does this matter? Doesn’t the Universal Declaration of Human Rights say that “all human being are born free and equal in dignity and rights”?

I believe that any document, UN-sponsored or otherwise, must be based on the preferences of older people in relation to their lifestyle, residence, assets and relationships. Not that they are treated as passive and incompetent and certainly not clumped together as “the elderly”. As I concluded before, respect for older people’s rights benefits everyone. Because, if violation of these rights leads to exclusion, poverty and discrimination, then society is robbing itself of the potential that older people represent and of their contributions based on their experience and wisdom.





[1] “As you like it”.

[2] All these examples refer to men or “man”. Sometimes virtuous women were also rewarded with long life.

Posted in Attitudes and values (culture, sexuality and spirituality) | Leave a comment