Until he was 100 years old, Bob Foster lived at the home he built in Titirangi. Almost until the day, he left he tended the rhododendrons and the big vegetable garden. It would take him three days to mow the large lawn.
Foster bought the property in the 1950s with a $5 deposit and a gentleman's handshake. He'd loved the Waitakere Ranges since his father took him to Auckland's west coast as a young boy.
The retired engineer has the deeply creased hands of a man who has wrestled with the land and physics. He built boats and bridges. Fiercely independent, he was still sailing at 80 and driving at 97. In his 90s, his daughters made him promise to stop going on the roof to clear the gutters.
But now at 101, his body is abandoning him. His handshake is warm but weak. A year ago Foster and his wife Shirley moved out of Titirangi to a nursing home after they both suffered bad falls on the same day. Accustomed to doing so much, he is frustrated by the mundanity of his everyday life. "I can't do anything. I can't go up the stairs. I do very little. I suppose you could say I am a bit bored," he says.
But in the sun, in his seat beside the window with this week's Listener, Foster is content. When he looks at the photo board with black and white pictures of his wedding, the construction of their home, and their five children, he sees a life well lived.
"I am pleased with all the things I have managed to do. That includes the deeds and efforts of our family, I am immensely proud," he says.
Foster is one of 558 Kiwi centenarians recorded in the last census. In 1996 there were 258. Over the last century, New Zealand's life expectancy has gone up 25 years.
The 65 and over age group nearly doubled in number between 1981 and 2013 – from 309,795 to 607,032 people – according to 2013 Census results released last week. The 65+ age group grew from 9.9 percent to 14.3 percent of the population and is projected to grow to 23.8 percent in another 30 years. People aged 85 and over are making up a growing proportion of the group, increasing from 10.8 percent in 2001 to 12.1 percent in 2013, and are projected to be 19.7 percent by 2043. A girl born in 2014 can expect to live to 95, according to Statistics New Zealand projections.
Since 1840, across the world, life expectancy has increased by around two years every ten years. Up until the 1950s, life expectancy grew when children stopped dying as immunisation beat back diseases like smallpox and polio. Since the 50s, while child mortality has continued to decline, life expectancy has increased largely because people are living much, much longer, as modern medicine defeats diseases like cancer and heart disease.
"You have a better chance of making it to 65 than you ever did. But if you make it to 65 you have a better chance of living to 70 and 80 and 90," says Martin Connolly, the Freemasons' professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Auckland.
Many regard our ageing population with alarm - a tsunami of grey that will drown the country in medical and welfare costs. But the increasing longevity of our lives is no natural disaster: it has been forecast for 40 years. And it also has potential to be a dividend to the country, not a burden, although New Zealand is ill-equipped to reap the benefits.
As New Zealanders live longer, they are also living a better life. Increased longevity has not been accompanied by increased disability. Most will live healthy independent lives, contributing to the country for longer than ever before, until the very final years of their life.
Although the longer you live the more likely the development of dementia, that likelihood is progressively reducing. The 80-year-old today is healthier than the 80-year-old 20 years ago and much healthier than 50 years ago.
"Not only are we living longer, but they are healthier, more active lives," says Connolly. "This is a great success. It is probably man's greatest achievement."
At 103 Bill Tuckey thinks he has a few more years in him still. He's chirpy and crisp on the phone from his home in Rawene, Northland. He doesn't know why he has lived so long, but he suspects avoiding cigarettes and alcohol might have something to do with it.
"I have never smoked. Never wanted to. I don't go to the pub, for the simple reason when I was a young fella you never had the money to go to the bloody pub," he says.
"No smoking and no getting pushed at the pub, they contribute to a long life."
He is weeding his garden in preparation for turning it over before spring planting. He takes flowers to his wife's grave every week. He met Nora when he was 18, and she died 20 years ago.
"Oh yeah, I miss her more and more each day," he says.
He lives on his own but is not lonely. He couldn't bare the thought of relinquishing the independence of his home and his health.
"I don't want to go into hospital. I don't want to be there in bed. I don't want to be in a wheelchair. I want to be where I am. Sit in the sun when I want to," he says.
When health does deteriorate, it's usually not the state that picks up the burden. Around 90 percent of care is provided by families. If you get sick as an older person, it is your spouse who is most likely to care for you. Then your daughter, then your family. Then the government.
Older people continue to contribute deep into their lives. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of paid employment of people over the age of 65, with around one third still working. And older people have the highest rate of volunteering. "We benefit as a country from that massively," says Connolly.
And families benefit hugely from the older generation too. Often pejoratively talked about as "dependents", ironically, international research shows that on average, older people continue to financially contribute to their children until they are 82; only then does money start to flow in the opposite direction.
They often help their children to home ownership or contribute to student loans, and in some cases, kids had moved back home late in life. They are free childcare for grandchildren. And there are emotional benefits too: "In terms of the learnings and wisdom of old people, people still rely on the experience of mum and dad when they are mum and dad," says Connolly.
Bunty O'Neill turns 100 in October. Old family friends with the editor of the local newspaper, he wants to run a special story for her birthday. If they do O'Neill has threatened to sue them. The feisty 99-year-old lives on her own and enjoys her life full of friends and family, although she gets frustrated at her fading vision and hearing.
She handed in her driver's licence because of macular degeneration. The car and the independence it represents taunts her from the garage. She still spends a lot of time in her garden, although a few flowers have been mistaken for weeds out in their time.
"Things take me a lot longer than they used to. The days aren't as long as they used to be," she says.
But life is good. She is happy and has a great sense of humour. And her happiness is representative of many her age. In a 15 year longitudinal study of 937 Kiwis aged between 80 and 90, on average these very old people scored their quality of life around 75 out of 100. "I am still having fun. Not as much fun as when I was able to drive the car," she says.
They regularly make contributions to their family and their communities. They are civically engaged and have strong opinions about things. More than 50 percent were still driving, and half were living in their own home.
"They are a very resilient bunch. It is important to remember that people are very active and very out there," says Ngaire Kerse, professor of population studies at the University of Auckland, and leader of the study. By 2068 there will be 61800 people older than 95 living in New Zealand, more than 12 times current numbers, according to Statistics New Zealand projections. Despite the signals visible for decades, New Zealand has failed to prepare for its changing demographics. Communities are not designed to support an older population to make the most of their extended years.
"It is a huge resource for our society, not just a burden. If we have a problem it is because we have failed to think about how we are going to release that dividend of that extend life," says Kay Saville-Smith, director at the Centre for Research Evaluation and Social Assessment.
Research has shown good neighbourhood design allows older people to function in their community for longer with greater independence. As they lose their ability to read the outdoor environment, neighbourhoods can look after the older population. "Neighbourhoods for Life" developed by Oxford Brookes University feature wide footpaths, short streets and distinctive street furniture for mental mapping. In Europe street art in particular places work as landmarks, so people know where they are.
People do best and are happiest when they are in their own environment. "Aging in place" lets people keep their independence. And homes can also be designed to adapt to the age and stage of their residents. Homes that meet design requirements like widened doors and hallways, living areas with space to manoeuvre wheelchairs, and showers with level entries, can be awarded the Lifemark, certifying the house as accessible and functional for a range of people. This saves money on retrofitting homes to support an ageing population.
"We definitely haven't prepared, we haven't thought things through. That is why we have this anxiety now," says Saville-Smith.
And it has lead to the perception that this population will weigh on the nation - the idea that older people pillage the government coffers and the belief that they are going to be an ongoing burden on healthcare. In reality that gets paid out early in their age through diseases like cancer, or in the last year of people's lives, when dying.
Those fiscal burdens are seen as falling on the younger generation and that is perceived as unfair. This has pitched generations against each other in New Zealand. Access to housing and the cost of a university have become combative complaints of intergenerational inequity.
"All of those things feed into this sense that they haven't had a good a deal as old people," says Saville-Smith.
It also means the wisdom of the older generation, and the joy the elderly get from participation with younger people is lost.
"It is about realising that they are not just old people in a home, they are people who are willing and able to contribute and be a part of our society," says Dent.
And the next generation of old people will face new problems associated with less financial freedom. New Zealand's lauded superannuation scheme relies on its beneficiaries being mortgage and rent free. And for a long time, this has been the case. But home ownership in New Zealand is at its lowest level since 1951 and has fallen among older people.
"In 25 years 50 percent of older people will be in the rental market. Our rental market is not organised around that population at all," says Saville-Smith.
In provincial New Zealand where there is a structural ageing of the population, the population is going to fall. There are towns in New Zealand that are going to contract. That is a big issue for older people living there, where the rate burden is going to be spread among fewer people.
"We are looking at a real revolution in New Zealand. This is a completely new environment for us. It is something we haven't seen since the 1930s."
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