Valuing our Senior Citizens

  • Robyn McDonald
Senior Citizens

Municipal Theatre, Hastings

Regional President, Mr Stewart, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be here today at your AGM and would like to take this opportunity to discuss my perspective on senior citizens issues a few months into my ministerial appointment.

I was very pleased to be made Senior Citizens Minister for over the years, I have had a close association with older New Zealanders and I know and understand from my personal experiences, a great deal about the real concerns which impact on your daily lives.

I see my role as a vital one in the machinery of Government. I am your advocate at all levels of government and intend to have my voice heard very clearly when issues which impact upon you are under discussion.

The advantage to you is that I am a strong advocate with the intention of ensuring improvements particularly in policy, but also in the way society values our older people.

I have always believed that valuing our senior citizens is an important aspect of community life, and it concerns me greatly that in recent years, there has been a tendency by communities to overlook the contribution made by older persons in our community life.

By the very nature of such life-long experience, the wealth of such experience can make our communities better and more enjoyable places to live, and participate in.

Too often such experience, knowledge and skills are lost to our society and I want to see this situation change.

Older New Zealanders are important and I believe we need to all work together to ensure that we find ways to involve them far more in community life.

Most older people have always contributed through very full work lives and today, through involvement with family and friends, but we need a wider appreciation.

Continued productivity and community involvement during older years, has benefits for both the individual and for government.

For example, having a wide range of educational, recreational and leisure programmes targeting older people encourages them to remain fit and healthy for as long as possible. That in turn, not only enriches their life and keeps it more interesting, but also ensures that demands on health services are reduced.

There are also advantages too, in encouraging policies which allow older adults to continue in the paid workforce. Not only does it maintain the self-esteem of the individuals involved, but it will also help to reduce financial dependence on the State and contribute to economic growth.

In terms of attitudes towards positive ageing, I do believe the emphasis should certainly be on "positive". There are still too many people both young and old who seem to see ageing as a negative, and seemingly ignoring the very real fact, that one day they too, will be in the "ageing" category.

To me, it is essential that we, as a Coalition Government, promote positive ageing to enhance health, financial security, independence, self-fulfillment, positive community attitudes, personal safety and security, and the physical environment.

To achieve this, we not only have to work with our older generations but also our younger generations so we can change attitudes, expectations and actions across our society and ultimately have a more fulfilling environment for our older people.

I am very supportive of the development of intergenerational programmes and I do believe that such programmes are a major step to revitalising and changing attitudes towards ageing.

Such programmes provide the opportunity too, to dispel the negative image and myths of aging. They will also be an excellent way to recognise the contributions older people make to our communities.

I was very interested to note that the 1988 Royal Commission on Social Policy in New Zealand, noted that: "as a consequence of better living standards, people approaching retirement today are healthier and live longer than their predecessors, and have the ability to actively participated in the labour force".

The report concluded that: "retirement often brings a loss of status and loneliness, and a withdrawal from community life and social activities".

It is that very result which I want to change for older people. Moving from a very active life into retirement has an enormous impact during the transition, and it is that transition which I believe we need to also focus on with greater emphasis.

For such a reason too, the concept of "productive and positive ageing" has been initiated.

Retirement does not mean ceasing to contribute to society and one's local communities.

In my view, retirement opens up wonderful windows of opportunity but sometimes it takes a helping hand to open those windows.

When I was briefed on senior citizens issues soon after taking over the portfolio, I was very impressed with both the work of my team in the Senior Citizens Unit but also that of organisations such as Grey Power and Age Concern.

It illustrates quite clearly how team work and co-operation can help further enhance positive initiatives and policies aimed at older people.

The emphasis on a more positive approach is also supported by the Government's "Coalition Agreement", in which we stated that our general policy direction will: "ensure that retired persons live in the relative comfort and dignity that their age, experience and previous labour clearly justifies, and that they are not discriminated against but encouraged to contribute their knowledge and endeavours to the general community."

Currently, we have a number of government agencies looking at ways to develop and implement strategies to promote positive ageing.

I am very interested in the Prime Ministerial Task Force on Positive Ageing which was established last year in response to concerns raised by the need to prepare New Zealand for an ageing population.

There is no doubt that these concerns are fully supported by statistics which project that in the five years to 2001, the population over the age of 65 is expected to increase by 25,250 people, in the decade to 2011, there will be an extra 84,650 people, and by the year 2031, people in this age group is expected to reach 940,000 people.

Such an increase in the number of older people will have an impact on government policies particularly in health, retirement income support and community support service provision.

Planning for an older population needs to start now, sooner rather than later.

In the same instance, we need to have positive ageing widely promoted to improve the lifestyle of our current older citizens, as of now.

The Task Force on Positive Ageing is expected to report back to the Government at the end of June, and will be advising us on a strategy for ensuring greater co-operation between agencies in monitoring the needs of older people and promoting and supporting positive ageing.

I hope to be able to meet with the Task Force members in the near future to discuss issues impacting on older people.

The Positive Ageing Strategy currently being implemented by the Department of Social Welfare responds to the need for a vision and I am committed to their stated objectives which are reflected in the Coalition Government's direction in this policy area.

As I said earlier, valuing our older people is essential and in my view, should be at the heart of all our policies for senior citizens.

I was particularly pleased to see that DSW's key strategies included: encouraging and supporting older people to stay independent for as long as they are able; encouraging and supporting older people to participate and contribute to the wider community; and promoting positive attitudes to ageing throughout New Zealand society.

These are three areas that I want to vigorously promote and work with organisations such as Grey Power, to ensure that each area is not just a concept but a reality in the daily lives of older people.

We are already seeing positive initiatives including the "Super Centres" concept, and the Keeping Independent Now (KIN) Programme.

We are also starting to look towards 1999 as the United Nations International Year of Older Persons and I invite suggestions from you for a New Zealand theme within that year.

This International Year will bring the spotlight onto policies within individual countries and globally, and I welcome the efforts by other nations too, to recognise the fact that older people make a significant contribution to society.

For example, the Australian Government released a document "Continuing Participation in Community Life - The Australian Government's Commitment to Older People".

Their strategy "involves a new approach to the development of policies for older Australians, based on a recognition of the important roles played by older people in the community".

My recent visit overseas was very fruitful in the discussions I held with key organisations and officials.

At the OECD, I met with the Director of the Education, Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Directorate and was very interested to learn that they were undertaking a study of issues impacting on older people in OECD countries. They were going to particularly focus on social issues like retirement income and health.

I pointed out that we had key issues which we were looking at in New Zealand, and suggested that they may wish to include them in their study. The issues included elder abuse and neglect, and continuing education for older people so that they can take up other opportunities.

I am pleased to say that they will now include them in their study and I will await their report with considerable interest.

What I also learnt was that each nation is facing the same issues in the senior citizens policy areas and the exchange of information on policy initiatives and programmes means that we do not have to re-invent the wheel, so to speak.

The OECD was very interested in our programmes such as the pilots on elder abuse and neglect as well as the Police Volunteers programme and also the development of intergenerational programmes.

In Britain, there is of course, a closer correlation between our programmes and policies.

One Age Concern National Campaign being run is called "More than Bricks and Mortar" which is an aimed at promoting the right for older people to live with dignity and independence in decent, affordable housing.

Age Concern are promoting a system to meet their aim and raise awareness of the issues over housing.

Now the concept they are working with has merit, but I also believe that such housing programmes cannot be seen as the sole responsibility of government.

We have to find ways to work with older people to maximise their resources and also with organisations such as yours, to improve the overall lifestyle for our older people.

I have also asked my team in the Senior Citizens Unit to co-ordinate a series of consultation meetings with older people around New Zealand. At this stage, I anticipate they will begin at the end of May.

I am wanting to discuss the concerns of older people and to listen to your views about policies impacting on you.

Now I know I cannot resolve every issue and concern overnight, but I am hoping to use the results of our meetings to enhance current policies or develop new responses.

I look forward to working closely with you on issues and be assured that I believe in having an "open door" to listen to concerns and work co-operatively together to deal with them.

My sincere thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk to you today.