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New Zealand’s population is ageing rapidly but how quickly are we as a nation adjusting to the needs of older people? Statisticians predict that by 2050, 27 per cent of people will be aged 65 or older.

A recent study, undertaken by Dr Ngaire Kerse a professor at the University of Auckland and the Chair of Ageing Well looked into the realities of our ageing population and what this may mean for us as a nation.

The increase in over 85-year-olds is particularly stark. Currently there are 83,000 people in this bracket, by 2060 however it is predicted there will be 383,000. With health outcomes having improved for Maori, Pacific and Asian people, the increase for these groups will be even more pronounced.

Of course, it is very positive news that so many of us are living longer and this is largely due to advances in medicine meaning that good health can be maintained into our senior years but in what areas should consideration be given to ensure we are collectively ready for this older nation?

Physical and mental health
The study, found that large proportions of our current over 80’s are living alone. Whilst the individuals were independent and managing their own activities, such as gardening, shopping and eating food they prepared themselves, concerns such as muscle strength, aerobic capacity and other medical conditions mean that they tend to be much more fragile.

Initiatives aimed at encouraging strength and mobility in all older people will therefore need investment, as well as encouragement delivered through health professionals for older people to take up available activities in their area that could contribute to their wellbeing. For example, low weight bearing activities to boost bone strength, pilates classes or seated yoga are just some ways in which older New Zealanders can contribute to their physical health.

Similarly important, says Kerse, is ensuring people remain connected and maintain their cognitive function. Thus avoiding isolation and continued access to services within their local communities will be crucial for older loved ones.

Public areas
To truly take account of the larger proportion of older people in our country we will need to ensure that accessibility in public areas is suited to all. Footpaths may need to be built differently such that they are easier for the less mobile to maintain footing on. Also of importance for this group of older pedestrians will be things like ensuring more time is available at traffic lights to allow them to safely cross.

Services
Another area that will demand investment is of course the public services that are of fundamental importance to this group of New Zealanders. With regard to public transport, as well as maintaining a good network there is much that can be done in terms of making sure that bus travel across the country is more comfortable for those less mobile. We cannot hope to enable older people to maintain their circle of friends or hobbies if their access is limited by available transport.

Protection for vulnerable elders
For such a large group of New Zealanders who may be living alone, or dependent on care facilities, safeguards against forms of elder abuse must be put in place to protect our loved ones from harm. Standards within care facilities must be maintained, care staff vetted and strong action taken wherever misdemeanours are identified. Of course as a nation, we must continue to be community minded, a little bit of checking in on the older people in our communities can go a very long way to ensuring that individuals are less likely to fall prey to scams or attempts to manipulate them.

Making homes suitable
With so many able to live independently far longer, more New Zealanders than ever before are opting to include renovations which will suit their needs, or those of relatives, well into their older years perhaps whilst tackling other renovation work in the home, or even when first moving in to what they see as their ‘forever home’. This future-proofing is not a new concept, but the broad choices of products such as home lifts or domestic lifts – and home elevators as they are otherwise known, available to homeowners has made this a more realistic way of living. Few of us would want a stairlift taking pride of place in the hall when there is no one in need of such an aid but we might be happier to make use of a bespoke domestic lift installed with a view to making life a little easier.

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