Tauranga is one of New Zealand’s larger cities that has rapidly grown in the last few decades due to its wonderful climate (generally warm and fine), its fine beaches and the generally high quality of life that its residents enjoy. It has also become a city of choice for more elderly New Zealanders looking for somewhere to retire. It has therefore become a city with a large number of elderly residents and resthomes. This is causing some concern as social scientists warn of a future Tauranga full of “ghost suburbs and empty retirement villages”.

The rate of growth of elderly people in the Tauruanga area can be seen in the following figures:

  • The number of those aged over 80 years is predicted to grow at percent per year;
  • By 2033 the number of those aged over 85 years in the region is predicted to be 15,611, an increase of nearly six times the number over 85 year olds living in the area in 2013;
  • In Tauranga, the number of those aged of 65 years is expected to rise from 22,880 in 2013 to 54,725 in 2033;
  • Carole Gordon, a social scientist specialising in gerontology and working with the region’s councils on the issue of population ageing, predicts that “By 2030, one in three people walking down the street will be aged over 65”.

Tauranga is merely experiencing in a more extreme fashion the ageing phenomenon that New Zealand as a whole is in the middle of. As Ms Gordon notes, currently there are more people aged over 50 than under in New Zealand and the population is set to start declining when the baby boomers start to hit the age of 75 in six years’ time. It is not an issue that we can say we have had no notice of, government officials and others working in the area have been concerned about it for many years:

“In 2002, the New Zealand Treasury said: ‘Population ageing has the potential to become the single biggest economic and policy issue of the next 50 years.’

SmartGrowth [which manages growth in the Bay of Plenty/Tauranga area] implementation manager Duncan Tindall agrees the issue is huge. ‘From 2033, the projection is that 80 per cent of the growth will be in the over-65s,’ he says. ‘It’s not something that can be ignored.’

Falling birthrates and increasing longevity are combining to increase the number of older people and drive down the younger population.”

 Although New Zealand’s ageing population is hardly unique in the western world, this country is a world-leader when it comes to institutionalising the elderly. As the Bay of Plenty Times reports:

“A University of Auckland study this week found that almost half of New Zealanders aged 65 and older are living in residential care by the time they die.

It found 47 per cent of people in the 65+ age group die in rest homes, geriatric hospitals and dementia care facilities – a higher figure than in any other country in the world.

The researchers say the results show not only a demand for such services, but a lack of appropriate alternatives.”

I had no idea that New Zealand was a world-leader in the elderly dying in institutions. But although it would be nice to think of everyone dying in their homes peacefully at a ripe old age, it is unfortunately the fact that many of us will need care in old age, and often the only way that proper care can be provided is if we move into a retirement home or other care facility. (When my wife and I were looking for an affordable house in Auckland – a task that even Sisyphus would not be subjected to – we often joked that we should just buy into a retirement home. After all, they often have excellent facilities and community living. Unfortunately, retirement homes tend to have a lower age limit…)

As Ms Gordon argues, there are ways that the elderly can stay in their homes for longer and not have to go into care.

“‘With an ageing population, we need to keep people active and well,’ she says. ‘If they’re not active and well, they cost the state money.’ [And are less happy and fulfilled? Perhaps that’s also a reason to think about helping the elderly to be active?]…

‘At the end of the day, [councils] need to plan for liveable communities where people can access all the services and amenities they need so they can have happy and well lives.’

She despises the term “elderly” for anyone over 65, saying people in their 60s are only at mid-life and it is ironic that now societies have achieved longevity, it is viewed as a problem rather than a cause for celebration.

The way forward, she says, is to focus on older people as a resource rather than a burden, and encourage lifelong education and training, using herself as an example.

Now in her 70s, she earned a first-class honours degree at age 64 and says many people her age want to continue working and learning, particularly as they live longer.

‘People want to be trained and relevant and add new skills to their repertoire … some people do choose to sit and do nothing, but most people want to be active.'”

If we don’t think of new ways to think about those at a more advanced stage of life and to see them as valued and productive members of society, then the growth of retirement homes in Tauranga and the rest of New Zealand will only increase. If that happens, then once the baby boomers start dying in large numbers, we will be left with empty suburbs of retirement homes. There is one positive from all this: perhaps once we reach retirement age (in say 40 years) my wife and I will be able to get a fantastic place in a retirement home at a great price!

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...