Wellington Gerontology Conference

  • David Carter
Senior Citizens

"Challenges and Opportunities: Issues for the Millennium"

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for the invitation to open this Wellington Gerontology Conference.

Let me begin by saying you are working in what is a very fascinating area.

Ageing.

Old age comes to all of us - hopefully, and over the last decade New Zealanders have become much more aware of the implications of age.

New Zealand has an ageing population, and issues of how we look after the welfare of our older people and their health needs, have become much more relevant to all of us.

We now talk about these issues regularly, at frequent social gatherings for example, and over the last five years we have seen a resurgence in the debate over how we fund the retirement incomes of our older population.

It is fair to say that issues around ageing will become much more prominent in national politics and in the media over the next decade.

Today, I would like to touch on three areas where Government is playing a role in promoting positive ageing in this country.

I'd like to start with today's key date.

Today, 7 April, is World Health Day and the theme for this year's World Health Day, "Active Ageing makes the difference", reflects the focus of this year's United Nation's International Year of Older Persons. Most people would agree with Government when we state we want older people to actively age because there are clear benefits, for the health and quality of life older people experience when they are active and involved in society.

One of the ways Government is attempting to engage older people in more active pursuits is through our world-acclaimed Hillary Commission for Sport, Fitness and Leisure.

The work of the Hillary Commission is in encouraging older New Zealanders to be more physically and socially active, and it is recognised internationally.

The Hillary Commission co-ordinates a Kiwi Seniors Programme, through the Regional Sports Trusts, around the country which has a very strong influence in motivating older people to become active.

You will no doubt hear more about the programme later in the conference from the Commission's Kiwi Seniors manager, Diana O'Neill, and I am sure you will be impressed.

Some of their local activities include walking groups, water-based activities, gentle exercise classes and line dancing, as well as one-off pursuits like abseiling and skiing.

I have to admit many of the older people who take part in these programmes are probably in far better physical shape than many of my parliamentarian colleagues, including myself.

Getting out for regular exercise is something most MPs find extremely difficult to find the time for.

But exercise, for its motivational benefits, as well as its physical benefits, is something most of us should take part in.

The Commission's work involving older people in improved levels of exercise is admirable, and obviously from a Government perspective there are real financial benefits as well as social benefits, if our population keeps as healthy and fit as possible.

I would like to move to the bigger focus this year, and that has to be the United Nation's International Year of Older Persons.

This year is a very special year for all of us.

In countries around the world, and in communities around New Zealand, the United Nation's International Year of Older Persons provides us with a rare opportunity to truly recognise and celebrate our older population.

The theme of the year is "Towards A Society For all ages."

But how do we get there?

Too often today, older people are ignored in our culture which places an overwhelming emphasis on the values of our young people.

There's no escaping youth culture.

Whether it be music videos on TV, the fashion in our shops or the growing dominance of issues affecting the young on the Internet, we're bombarded daily with what our young think, feel and want.

But what about our older generation?

How often do we hear what they're feeling, what directions they'd like to see the country head in and what their dreams and aspirations are?

Not often.

That's why I believe it's more important than ever that we make the most of this year.

It's not often we get an International Year solely dedicated to recognising the older person, and this year is an opportune time for all of us to start celebrating the worth of our older members.

I'd like to run through some of the exciting events New Zealand has planned over the next few months to celebrate International Year of Older Persons.

Government has kick-started the celebrations with half a million dollars, which will be used to support community activities, promotion of the year, research on ageing, and a nation-wide strategy and co-ordinator.

The first major event to mark the year occurred last month when the Human Rights Commission, with help from my advisors from the Senior Citizens Unit, hosted two conferences in Auckland and Wellington.

The conferences were designed to educate employers about the law change which took effect from February 1 this year, banning age-discrimination in the workplace.

The amendment to the Human Rights Act banished the prospect of employers being able to enforce compulsory retirement at age 65.

Just as significantly, employers can now no longer discriminate against staff on the basis of their age.

This is a profound change which will, over time, alter the way New Zealanders think about mature workers, and the conferences helped to educate the business community about the law change and their new responsibilities.

The International Year theme tied in with the law change in February was "Valuing the contributions of older people" and what better place to start than with the workforce?

It was wonderful to see national and local media dedicating space to exploring the issues around this law change, and it's my hope that at least some of the business community has now got the message - age doesn't matter in the workplace.

Next month, the second series of events to celebrate International Year of Older Persons will kick off, hinging around the United Nation's International Day of the Family on May 15.

The theme for May is "Valuing the relationships between Young and Old" and intergenerational activities will come to the fore.

A series of programmes will be run in schools nation-wide encouraging interactions between the very young and the very old. Getting our children to play, talk and learn from their grandparents can only be a positive thing for New Zealand.

I'm looking forward to visiting some of the programmes myself next month.

The final key date for the year is the 1st of October, International Day of Older Persons.

My advisors in the Senior Citizens Unit tell me a number of communities have already planned celebrations and many others are on the drawing board.

This date will become a pivotal point in celebrating the International Year with activities including displays, galas, radio programmes and festivals planned to highlight the value of older people.

Close to a quarter of a million dollars has been allocated by Government for these community celebrations, and I was delighted to announce in January, the 24 recipients of this funding.

Communities from Kaeo and Whangarei in the north, to Alexandra and Dunedin in the south received funding, so we can look forward to a nation-wide feast of older celebrations.

One of the unique concepts that has grabbed my attention is Invercargill's plan to plant a golden mile of daffodils to mark the year, along the state highway leading into Invercargill.

Young and old people from the city are planning to work together planting this mile of daffodils-and that sums up the year for me in a nutshell!

Harmony between our generations - what a goal!

The third area I would like to talk about today is the area of research.

Research on ageing is a recurring theme for your conference programme, and understandably an important issue for the New Zealand Association of Gerontology. In the past most research in the field of older age has focused on the health service needs of older people, but today there is increasing recognition of the need for research on other issues relevant to the lives of older people.

It is my belief, that if we as a society get the fundamentals right where older people are concerned, such as well-being, fitness, family relationships and security, then the health of older people will look after itself.

In effect, what I am saying is that improved support networks make it easier for older people to maintain their health.

Greater co-ordination between research and policy development is also becoming increasingly critical.

You will hear over the next three days details of some of the current research being undertaken.

Professor Ng of Victoria University will report back on intergenerational communication in European/Pakeha and Chinese communities in New Zealand.

And Dr Chris Cunningham of Massey University will fill you in on some of the issues that have arisen during research into the health and social needs of older Maori.

What I would like to highlight today however is Government's contribution to the research findings on older people - in particular a project which is underway this year.

As part of the national strategy for International Year of Older Persons , Government allocated $50,000 last year for a research project on older people. The project was designed to focus on the factors which help older people maintain their independence.

The research project will:

focus on identifying the factors which enable some older people to remain active and involved in contributing to the community, either through voluntary work, paid employment or involvement in other community activities.
identify the factors which prevent older people from being able to remain independent and contribute to the community.
provide suggestions for future social policy action; and
provide suggestions for future research.
Government believes the results of the research project will be valuable when it comes to planning for an ageing population.

We believe the research will help our efforts to design services and policies which better meet the needs of New Zealand's diverse older population.

The body of the research is still underway, but Government expects to hear back from the company doing the study with their results in October.

In closing, I would like to highlight the situation of our ageing population.

I am sure most of you will be aware of the trends, but the specific demographic quandary we face is quite challenging.

Like many other developed countries, New Zealand's population has been "ageing" over recent decades as a result of our declining birth rate and rapid improvements in life expectancy.

Older people now make up a growing proportion of our population.

In March last year, the 65 years and over made up 12 percent of the population, up from 11 percent at the start of the decade in 1991.

By the year 2011, when the baby boom generation of which I am a part of, enters the over-65s, we will see this group grow to 13 percent of the population.

The 65 years and over will then grow to 17 percent of the population by the year 2021, and then grow to a staggering 21 percent by the year 2031.

At the same time, over the next two decades, the age structure of the working age population will also substantially change.

The working age population, that is those between the ages of 16 to 64 years, currently makes up 65 percent of the total population.

This figure is forecast to increase slightly to 67 percent by the year 2010, but is then projected to start falling significantly to around 59 percent by the year 2031.

Now what this all means is that over the longer term, proportionally fewer people of working age will be available to generate the resources needed to support the increasing number of retired people.

We have all heard over the last couple of years the debate concerning the future of superannuation in this country, but the demands of our growing retirees will not only affect the cost of superannuation, but will also impact significantly on our health budget.

As Minister for Senior Citizens I can tell you the figures are quite frightening and they are quite real.

And so is the challenge.

It is not scaremongering on Government's part to raise these issues, and we all need to be aware of the tough decisions we will have to make in the future concerning the level of superannuation which we can afford to fund.

As part of this dilemma, we will also need to question our health priorities, our social welfare funding and our education provision.

But with judicious management, we should be able to do all three.

It is a theme our Treasurer has been hammering home lately. This Government can offer you tax cuts, improved social spending and reduced debt.

We don't have to have one or the other.

Good economic management should be able to manage the competing demands of our society.

In the long term the economic growth of any country is dependent upon the number of people employed and their rate of productivity.

It is fairly evident that the retention of productive older workers will have enormous economic benefits, and will contribute socially.

Many people over the age of 65 years consider that they have a lot of work left in them.

I'd like to think in twenty years time, I'll be one of those types of people.

As well as the career satisfaction, older people, like their younger colleagues, enjoy the professional and social benefits of working in today's world.

That's what makes February's law change so profound

As well as the financial implications, allowing our population to work to the age they feel most comfortable with, has very real social benefits.

I consider that the February 1 law change has been one of the most effective policies we have been able to enact to support positive ageing.

And positive ageing is a concept that Government fully embraces.

We believe that the years of "older age" should both be viewed AND experienced positively, and Government aims to implement policies which achieve this goal for the older population.

Thank you all for listening to me today. ENDS