Alistair Bone talked to part of a research team that has just finished a three-year study on how we can grow old gracefully.
Three years and a million dollars down the track it's hard for Waikato University's Dr Margaret Richardson to remember what she expected going into the Positive Ageing study.
The research was funded by the Foundation for Research Science and Technology and run by staff at Waikato and Massey. It involved 550 interviews and focus groups with older people and contact with Age Concern and the Rauawaawa Kaumatua Charitable Trust. Richardson says the biggest surprise was probably how restrictive the physical environment was for older people. "I may have thought that had been attended to with the disability issues. But there are lots of issues that still need addressing."
These and other findings are now being released, first as a set of bullet points for the elderly and organisations that want to help them (see box) and later as policy advice.
Dr Richardson, a research fellow in management communication, and colleague Dr Mary Simpson are off to Vancouver to share the findings with the world at a conference on ageing.
First of all, there is the matter of terminology to deal with. "Elderly" won't cut it any more as a collective noun for those over 65. Mainly because no-one is going to own up to being it.
"If you talk to older people about being ‘elderly' it is always someone else," says Dr Simpson. "It's about being frail. It is never them." She likes a term dating from the 16th century, "senior citizen", or even the Americanism "seniors". But the research team settled on the word "elders" during the course of the study.
Then there's the problem that "over-65" is an expanding subset. It is now easily 35 years long and crosses a generation. Why expect a 65-year-old to think the same way as a 95-year-old when we don't expect them to think the same way as a 35-year-old?
The current clumsy wording ranks those between 65 and 80 as the "young old" and those above as the "old-old'.
"At the moment from 65 to 100 plus we are all in one little box", says Richardson, "despite our personal lives and circumstances and experiences".
Simpson says this is deceptively important. "Language doesn't just reflect our world, it creates our world."
That world will become more relevant to more of us. Statistics New Zealand says those over 65 will be one quarter of the population from the late 2030s, up from 12 per cent in 2005.
What they will find, according to the study, is that people will stop taking them seriously, will stop speaking clearly and will stop listening to them. Doors in commercial buildings will become impossibly heavy and both high and low things on shop shelves will be out of reach. Megastores will be uncrossable deserts. Self-service gas pumps will not be useable with arthritic hands. All the bedazzling new i-thingamawhatsits will stump them. Women may turn invisible, ignored at counters and seeing salespeople talk only to their younger companions. Not that there will be fashionable clothes for older people to buy anyway. From their side, they will be reluctant to wear their hearing aids, will be afraid to ask questions and won't be assertive enough.
The last two may be a function of the era today's seniors grew up in, say the researchers. A person turning 65 this year was born in 1947, a gloomy post-war hangover in many parts of the world, with parents who had lived through at least one and possibly two world wars and the Depression. Simpson and Richardson say many seniors, particularly those over 80, have been socialised into just accepting what is given to them, a hold-over from when there was not much to go around and everyone tried to make it easier on the next person.
"As a group they've been told to make the most of it, to make do," says Simpson. "To put up with it. That there are people worse off than you," says Richardson.
That may change when the children of the 1960s and even more assertive later generations start hitting 65 from the year 2025. But pride will remain a problem. The team's guide for older people is based on seniors accepting they aren't as capable as they once were in some way or other. It can be a hard pill to swallow. "If I ask for help does it look like I'm not capable?" says Richardson. "Does it look like I'm not competent? It's about wanting to be seen as a competent person as well as feeling like a competent person."
"The images of aging are largely negative, so you don't want to be seen as those negatives," says Simpson.
The pair venture businesses have a moral imperative to cater for seniors.
Luckily, their demographic wave is on a tide of silver dollars. Their mass spending power together with their votes means their will shall be done. Smart businesses are listening already and the team have made a series of guidelines for sellers.
A lot deals with the physical environment; non-cluttered with enough seats etc. The rest involves training staff to be both respectful towards older people and accommodating. "It is a lot to do with patience," says Richardson. "Taking a little bit more time."
Businesses that want to profit from the elderly need to be proactive in taking their needs into account, consider them in planning and train staff to deal with them. "The biggest thing we found," says Simpson, "is that the nature of interactions between organisations and elders has to be a joint responsibility. To make it positive elders have to do certain things and so do organisations. They have to notice each other's needs."
Technology could obviously have a huge effect on the lives of older people. The study was limited to how seniors interacted with self-service terminals and automated phone systems. Maybe surprisingly, they quite liked some of it. But it was crucial they got the right kind of help. Older people got a great sense of pride if someone took the time to show them how to use a barcode scanner rather than take over and do it for them.
The flip side is that the evolving no-human-contact society can further isolate lonely elders. "Some of the elders - especially when stuck at home - want the personal touch. They still want to see people," says Simpson. "That social opportunity is really important. Technology doesn't answer everything. Human beings are inherently social. In any interaction you need a combination of getting on with each other and getting a job done."
The personal touch was appreciated in the area the study operated in - Hamilton, Palmerston North, some of Tauranga and Matamata and the Waikato. Simpson says perceptions are important. "People in Matamata would say ‘oh in this small town everyone knows each other so we're looked after. It would be different if we were in Hamilton.' People in Hamilton said ‘we get to know each other, it's a smallish place, it would be different in Auckland'."
Maybe the sweetest surprise the study threw up was the reason behind some of the bad service. With some young people it wasn't a matter of being impatient with and too cool to talk to seniors, but rather that they were scared of looking stupid. "Some younger people feel inadequate around elders," says Simpson. "You wouldn't think that."
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