Address to Grey Power MarlboroughSenior Citizens
Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me back.
When I spoke at your last AGM, I spoke about my role as Minister for Senior Citizens and how I saw my role as an advocate for older New Zealanders. That has been precisely my role, and I feel I have been an effective advocate on a range of issues. This doesn't mean that I've won everything I've gone to bat for, but it does mean that there is a distinct advantage in having your voice heard at the Cabinet table.
Preparing to come here today has given me an opportunity to reflect on the contact I have had with Grey Power organisations around the country. I will say from the outset that I have found the relationship both positive and constructive.
One of the aspects I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to meet the people behind important community organisations like this one. The meetings I attend mean I can stay connected to the issues that matter to you most, and they give your members the chance to let me know directly what's going on for them in their communities.
Your role as Grey Power members, and as members of the Marlborough community, is to continue the advocacy work you do, and to keep reminding us in Government, where we are doing well, and where we could be doing better.
Not all the issues that Grey Power has involved itself in are exclusive to older people. In fact, they are often issues that matter to all people regardless of age.
Electricity, banks, bank fees, driver licensing, superannuation, health, disability issues, political integrity, government accountability . . . the list really is endless, isn't it?
Last year, I spoke to you about the need for a return to political integrity and the Labour Alliance Coalition Government's commitment to a programme of restoring a sense of balance to our society.
Despite some disquiet in Parliament, I have truly enjoyed my first year as a Government Minister.
As Jim Anderton says: "One bad day in Government is worth a thousand good days in opposition."
By delivering on our pre-election promises, I think the coalition Government has come a long way to restore people's faith in political integrity.
I would like to talk about some of the achievements we have made in the Senior Citizens portfolio.
Positive ageing strategy
Last month, we launched the Government's Positive Ageing Strategy and we did this with a fun debate entitled: "Positive Ageing Begins the Day You Are Born".
The idea behind this strategy is evident in its name. It's about promoting positive ageing across a broad range of portfolio areas to improve opportunities for older people so they can participate fully in the community in the ways they choose. But it also is designed to encourage all ages to think positively about ageing, and about those who are, through programmes that link the ages.
In designing the strategy we held over 40 consultation meetings around the country with non-government agencies, aged care sectors representatives and various expert and advisory groups.
I would like to acknowledge and thank every regional Grey Power association for their involvement in the development of the Positive Ageing Strategy.
The strategy document outlines policy principles for positive ageing, setting out priority goals and key actions. It is intended to be a living document with annual action plans for government agencies, with a monitoring system to check on how they are going. And I am pleased to say that there have been positive responses from other Ministers and government departments.
Many of the strategy's goals will take time to achieve; that is to be expected. However, the obligation for reporting will be, I believe, a much better insurance against decisions being made without consideration of their impacts on the positive ageing objectives.
But there is only so much Central Government can do to ensure that this strategy delivers an enhanced life for older people. We will need the co-operation of the volunteer community co-ordinators, local authorities and groups like yours to make the Positive Ageing Strategy an effective plan of action.
Just last year, the Positive Ageing and Intergenerational Relations research team at Victoria University released a report, about the ways local authorities have responded positively to the challenge of facilitating the independence and wellbeing of older people. It is called "Creating Communities for all Ages".
The underlying theme of that report was that local authorities can play a role in empowering older people. The report didn't provide the answer as to "how" councils should respond to our ageing population, but it did provide examples of the many ways they can respond.
I would certainly recommend it to you.
Another issue that has exercised my mind over the last year has been that of retirement villages. The concerns that have been raised with me relate to older people who take up residence in a retirement village unit, and are then, often caught up in complex legal matters and contracts which can in fact defeat the whole purpose of moving into that village in the first place.
It's interesting to note that retirement villages were originally, almost exclusively provided by religious and welfare organisations. These organisations clearly filled a need where older people who did not qualify for pensioner flats could be housed in care-based homes for older people. These people who didn't qualify for pensioner flats were often in this position because they had capital resources, mostly from the sale of a family home.
This system worked well for a while, but while we like to think most things improve with age, this wasn't necessarily the case with retirement villages.
The purpose or reason retirement homes existed, started to change over time as the private sector became involved bringing in capital investors and property developers.
On the positive side of retirement villages is the fact that they enable retired people to live in a comfortable and reassuring lifestyle, with the companionship of other residents, and accessible health and support services.
But it has become obvious that with growth in the retirement village industry, came problems for residents in those villages. Here are some of the issues that have been either raised by the Law Commission or directly in correspondence to me:
· Making the decision to move into a retirement village is a stressful decision often made at a stressful time, such as after the loss of a spouse
· Older people can be vulnerable to and confused by complex legal issues expressed in fine print, especially where they have not been required to deal with legal matters before
· People don't realise that a licence to occupy is not the same as property ownership
· Many residents don't realise that independent legal advice is an important part of risk-assessment, and the quality of legal advice has been mixed
· Information about investments is not always clearly readable on forms
· The information available now does not always address all the issues relevant to retirement village investment
· Residents are lumbered with the cost of prospectuses required by the Securities Commission - and often all of the retirement village's legal costs as well.
· Village or home management seem to be able to increase fees without consultation or justification, to residents
· In some cases, the village management changes and new managers set salary levels and employment contracts favourable to themselves
· Residents have no avenue for lodging complaints and no power to influence decisions about non-performing managers
· Some residents can not leave the village without considerable financial loss
· There is a distinctly grey cloud around what happens when a unit is vacated but not sold
When the Law Commission looked into these issues, it decided that there was a need for retirement villages to come under separate legislation.
Putting this on the government's legislative agenda has been a priority for me, and I have been charged with the responsibility of leading the development and introduction of legislation specific to retirement villages and village residents.
I will be working with the Ministry of Social Policy to address the policy issues and we will also be liaising closely with the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Economic Development. Of course, an important part of the collective approach to this is talking with interested parties such as Grey Power, Retirement Villages Association, and Age Concern.
The Senior Citizens Unit is securing top legal advice to assist with the drafting of legislation, as clearly, we will need the expertise of people familiar with securities law as well as an understanding and empathy for older people's issues.
My goal is to come away with a Bill that offers comprehensive protection to residents of retirement villages, and to have it before the House before the end of the year.
I look forward to any contributions you wish to make as we progress this legislation.
Asset testing the Residential Care Subsidy
I know that one of the topics you have asked me to address is progress on removing the asset testing of the Residential Care Subsidy.
I am aware that a major difficulty with the current asset test is that it has led to the development of an industry that is focussed on avoiding it. Family trusts have been widely advocated as a means of protecting people's assets but the trouble with that is that the only ones likely to take advantage of such avenues, are people who are used to dealing with money matters and lawyers in any case.
One of the concerns surrounding asset testing is the incentive created for families to care for older family members when residential care would actually be in their best interests. There are of course many families who do this and they cope well. However, in some situations caring for an older family member is driven by financial concern and a concern to preserve the older citizen's assets, rather than the needs of that older person.
Interestingly, that is one of the examples of elder abuse that the Law Commission touches on in its recent discussion paper on the Misuse of Enduring Powers of Attorney.
The government still intends to introduce legislation before the end of this term, to remove the asset test on the Residential Care Subsidy. However, I still cannot say what the implementation date will be, as that decision has yet to be made.
Another topic which I am sure has been the topic over many cups of tea, is the relicensing of older drivers. I am aware that drivers aged over 80, and living in Picton, have to travel to Blenheim to sit the older driver's test. And because phone bookings are not permitted, sitting the test does mean two trips.
I commend you on your own efforts as an organisation to lobby the Land Transport Safety Authority to have a testing agent allocated to the Picton area once or twice a month to administer to older driver test. I know that LTSA is considering this idea.
As for the phone booking issue, it was one of the issues considered as part of the Review of the Cost and Management of Driver Licensing Regime, with respect to older people. I don't have any news to bring to you on this as Transport Minister Mark Gosche is still considering a report on the licensing programme.
In closing I would like to stress to you how much I am enjoying my advocacy role as your Minister, your voice at the Cabinet table. At times I have thought the workload itself was ageing me, but I do feel a sense of achievement for the things this coalition government has been able to deliver.
I want to say that positive attitudes are important if society is to realise that just because people have retired from work, that it doesn't mean they have retired from life altogether.
You may have already heard me say that I often hear people saying that we have to "do" something because of the ageing population, but the words that I found to express what I was feeling.
In launching the New Zealand Institute for Research on Ageing, Professor Ng said:
"New Zealanders who are now 65 plus are more highly educated and healthier than their predecessors. Their capacity for productive work of all kinds (not necessarily for pay) is a national treasure and this is set to rise with longer life expectancies attainable by more and more New Zealanders.
In about 30 years from now, over 20 % of our population will be made up of this group of Third Agers. Their contribution to New Zealand society is and will continue to be immense. If they are ignored, undervalued, or otherwise excluded from society, New Zealand can hardly be competitive against other countries that have found a way of harnessing this immense resource."
Thank you once again for the invitation to meet with you today.