Oamaru ticks all the boxes for retirees

16:00, Nov 02 2012
oamaru playground
UNUSUAL: Playground with a difference: The newly constructed pennyfarthing swing at Friendly Bay at the Oamaru Harbour.

Most of us have visited a place and vowed to retire there.

Allan Dick always planned to move back to his home town, Dunedin, but now he is over 70 and pro-Oamaru.

Dick arrived three years ago to keep his grandson out of trouble, but has no plans to leave now that his grandson has departed.

oamaru historic
ATTRACTIVE: The historic Harbour St precinct in the coastal town of Oamaru, capital of North Otago.

"This place is magical," says the reformed Aucklander, positively fizzing down the phone. "It's a bit like Central Otago on the coast."

He has always been fascinated by the town's beautifully preserved buildings.

"Oamaru has a microclimate all of its own. It's a very low rainfall area," he says.


"Dunedin is an hour and a quarter away, Christchurch is three hours by road, Central Otago is an hour and a half and then you've got the Waitaki valley.

"The lakes behind the hydro dams on the Waitaki River - you go up there in summer and the place is chocka with thousands of people, boating, skiing and swimming."

His favourite evening jaunt is a seaside dinner via a drive through Oamaru's time-warp Victorian precinct. On the way home, there's bird traffic. "Ïf you leave when it's dark, you have to stop on the way back for the little blue penguins toddling back into town."

Now for the best bit. Home is a hillside castle - an 1870 merchant's house with thick, creamy stone walls and beautiful views. It cost about half what he got for his home in Auckland.

Dick talks as though he has discovered a secret, but it won't be for long. By 2031, based on current projections, Oamaru's Waitaki district will have the highest proportion of pension-eligible occupants of anywhere in the country. About 36 per cent of residents could be aged 65 and over.

Thames-Coromandel, Horowhenua and South Wairarapa are not far behind. Wellington, by contrast, will have 15 per cent.

It is not just that young people are leaving. Older folk are moving from cities to smaller towns, seeking good weather, cheap houses, low rates and medical care, preferably all within an easy walk or in reach of public transport.

"It's the climate," says Lyne Reeves, a community development adviser at the Marlborough District Council, another retirement haven. "Also, we are still quite a small community and I think that makes it quite accessible. People don't get lost."


As part of efforts to be more retiree friendly, Marlborough publishes a booklet with details of social services, entertainment and community groups.

The deputy mayor regularly meets an older person's working group and the council has piloted a scheme to check older people's homes and help them get repairs.

Reeves says the two-yearly Seniors' Expo attracts 3000 of the district's 46,000 residents.

Retirees are often associated with high needs and healthcare, but they also bring money to invest in an economy, often without needing full-time work.

Dick wants to work, like a growing proportion of over-65s, but he doesn't need one of Oamaru's precious jobs. He travels the country as a writer and publisher, taking full advantage of aircraft and the internet. "My lifestyle has not changed, except I don't have the traffic problem," says Dick, who lived in Auckland for 25 years.

The funds industry calls post-retirement the "decumulation" phase - the time of a person's life when finances switch into reverse and people start to spend some of the assets they have built up all their lives.

For Waitaki's effusive Mayor, Alex Familton, older migrants are "totally an opportunity".

"We welcome more mature people because they bring with them assets and they're inclined to have money to invest at a stage when they don't wish to work as much as they used to," he says.

"The investment they bring becomes employment. For example, our timber industry and some of our dairy farming and irrigation workers owe their employment to more mature people who come into the district, particularly from Auckland."

Cheaper housing in small towns means money is left over to make other investments.

"A person can sell their house, get a very good house at half the price in Oamaru and invest the other half," Familton says.

He believes many retired or nearly-retired people are look for straightforward productive assets such as local irrigation and forestry, after being burnt by finance companies and complicated syndicates.

In Marlborough, seniors' dances and retiree-focused businesses are taking off, but the older profile is not always wealthy people retiring from cities.

"Our district has a higher-than-average number of residents living in high deprivation and low income, particularly for people aged 65 and over," says Marlborough's positive ageing strategy, resolving to work on "mitigating the risks of social isolation".


The list of attributes that make a retirement haven are much the same as any attractive town.

Weekends in Oamaru are mostly rain-free, says Dick, and his wife likes being able to walk around town.

"The town is big enough to have everything, but it is not big enough to really attract young people to stay."

As retirement nears, being near an economic engine is less important and stretching assets and fixed incomes becomes more so.

Rates are a big deal for retired migrants, says Grey Power's national president, Roy Reid. The lower the rates, the more likely an older person can afford to live somewhere, the Government's partial rates rebates scheme for pensioners notwithstanding.

Access to medical care is another factor that prompts older people to move, says Reid, with GP access often a greater worry than hospitals. Rural areas and places such as Westland and Buller can struggle to attract doctors, while the likes of Nelson and Takaka, where Reid has retired, attract plenty for much the same reason as they attract older people.

"It's the climate and lifestyle," Reid says.

Takaka was a compromise. It is near crucial services but does not have too much hustle and bustle.

"We used to come here for holidays and, having lived in a rural area [south Westland], I didn't really want to go to a city."

Familton says Waitaki's local hospital, which, unusually, is run by a council-controlled organisation rather than a district health board, is a drawcard for migrants because of its comparatively short waiting lists and accessible computerised tomography scanner.

When Dick had a heart attack two months ago, he travelled an hour and a quarter by ambulance to Dunedin, but acute cases can make the trip in 20 minutes by helicopter.

For others, being near family, transport or community groups matters most. A 2007 joint study between Victoria and Waikato universities, Enhancing Wellbeing in an Ageing Society, found a perception of safety, being able to access amenities, such as shops and public transport, and owning a home were among the most important factors for older people's wellbeing.

Not surprisingly, people felt better when they did things outside the confines of their house.


As in many small towns, Oamaru's business advocates are fretting about manufacturing industries closing and displacing more young people, but Familton remains upbeat, about both the economy and the opportunities presented by older migrants.

Perhaps he has little choice. "Bank managers in Oamaru have told me a lot of funds they get are from mature people coming into the district. One of the reasons we have more mature people is because we welcome them."

Penguin tourism is growing and, if that bores people, there is always the annual festival of steam punk, the retro-futuristic revival movement based on ideas from old science fiction.

The steam punk aesthetic works perfectly with Oamaru's Victorian stone buildings, apparently, and adds something of an edge to the town's entertainments (the council hosts a sculpture of an outsized metal motorbike in steam punk style outside its offices).

Most exciting for Familton is the news that Kiri Te Kanawa will sing in the opera house in March.

"It is going to be very emotional," he says.

Apparently, like Dick, the diva was won over by the buildings.

Percentage of over-65s by region at the last census:
New Zealand: 12.3
Auckland: 9.9
Wellington: 11.5
Otago: 13.8
Canterbury: 13.9
Manawatu: 14.3
Nelson: 14.5
Marlborough: 16.2

The Timaru Herald