Elderly: Don't let freedom go

JANINE RANKIN
Last updated 12:00 14/02/2013
Hans Becker

TALKING HAPPINESS: Hans Becker, second from left, shares a dose of laughter, the best medicine for older adults, with Summerset on Summerhill village residents Dennis Crockford, Margaret Hollingsworth and Colleen Grady, right.

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New Zealanders should care less for the elderly, says international aged living specialist Hans Becker.

Instead, older adults should be encouraged to maintain their independence, and more attention should be paid to their happiness than their hygiene.

Professor Becker, chairman of the Humanitas Foundation model of residential living for the elderly in The Netherlands, is in Palmerston North this week to lead a workshop on "the business and art of human happiness for seniors".

It is New Zealand's first Ageing Asia Workshop, held today.

Humanitas manages 1700 apartments designed for "ageing in place".

Dr Becker said groups providing accommodation and support for older people should not care for them so much, but make it possible for them to continue to care for themselves, until it was "really painful".

"Too much care is worse than too little," he said.

Once people handed over responsibility for their transport, their cooking, their cleaning and bathing to someone else, it was hard to get those functions back.

His other concern is that loneliness is the most important disease of the elderly, not issues related to physical health.

"Loneliness is a horrible thing. We have to eradicate loneliness.

"A care organisation has an important role, not just in cleaning people and giving injections, feeding them carbohydrates and vitamins, but in providing an extended family."

People needed to have people to talk to, to share memories with, to have things to do and new activities to explore.

He said that while for some people, living in a community of people of a similar age with similar interests provided good opportunities for company, he preferred a diversity of ages and nationalities, abilities and lifestyles.

"That mixture is not always sweet. It can be difficult. There will be people with dogs and people without dogs, but then we have real conversations, you might get angry, you complain to your neighbour . . ."

People should remain in control of all sorts of decisions about how they lived, free to make choices without a nurse frowning at them.

"It's about being the boss of your own life. In a room in a nursing home, you are never the boss."

Dr Becker said the shift in philosophy made sense economically, as well as in human happiness, as the things that made people happy, such as a pet, were invariably cheaper than dependence on a team of nurses and caregivers.

In New Zealand's case, it is estimated there will be 1 million adults aged above 60 by 2020.

"With more and more people over 80, and fewer younger people to look after them, we cannot go on the way we have."

Dr Becker said the design of housing and communities helped create opportunities for happiness, and for people to be able to grow old in their own homes, with services coming to them as they needed them.

Summerset chief executive Norah Barlow said she believed New Zealand was on track with Dr Becker's ideas, with the provision of independent-living homes and apartments in village communities offering a choice of activities and freedom.

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"These are people's homes and we don't go in unless invited. We have happy people living here, and a waiting list."

It was more difficult to apply his philosophy on care in rest home or hospital care wings. Aged care was highly regulated and tightly funded, and it was difficult to maintain a homely environment when there had to be signs up about how to complain, and no-one was allowed in a kitchen without a hairnet and cap.

Dr Becker is also visiting Chiswick Park Retirement Village, Best Care Whakapai Hauora, and Abbeyfield Roslyn House.

- Manawatu Standard

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