Like many countries, New Zealand is ageing – and ageing fast – and in the next years we will transition into a very different demographic profile.
But it is a transition we are not prepared for says Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, Pro Vice Chancellor of Humanities and Social Sciences who spoke at the New Zealand Aged Care Association (NZACA) Conference in Wellington last week.
“We know what’s coming and with a high level of certainty. Yet despite this, New Zealand and New Zealanders seem reluctant to engage with the implications of this ageing.
“And I’m frustrated. Mostly, I’m really, really disappointed with our political leadership and discussion on these issues.”
The author of 27 books, Professor Spoonley is currently writing a new book about this demographic change. He shared compelling insights with aged residential care providers at the conference and what it means for the sector.
“By 2031 people over 65 will be 25% of the population. At the same time the size of the under-15-year-old population is shrinking. In Taranaki for example, there are already now more over 65s than under 15s. Life expectancy is also increasing. By mid-century, New Zealanders will be living past 90.”
Indeed, female babies born in 2018 will have an average life expectancy of 94, which means half of that generation will live to be 100 or more. And by mid-century, more than 400,000 people will be aged over 85. A huge shift from the current 80,000.
But Professor Spoonley says this shift won’t affect New Zealand equally. By the 2030s there will be large parts of New Zealand where more than 30 per cent of the population will be 65 or older with regional concentrations in the Wairarapa, Central Otago, Kapiti Coast, Nelson, and the West Coast.
“Currently there is a growing mismatch as some regions and towns age much faster than others. This has major implications for the location of services and facilities.
“And our funding models are not keeping up with what’s happening in our communities. Particularly for the population over 85. Where are we putting dementia care units around the country that provide the necessary specialist health care needs?”
Social isolation a concern
Another core concern is social isolation for those in aged care facilities due to where facilities are located, he says.
“I do have an issue with how we approve, plan and build facilities in New Zealand, either not close to other facilities like shopping, or they tend to be isolated away from other communities. If we were talking about this in Europe, such countries like Germany or the Netherlands, approval to build a facility would require you build a childcare facility to get the intermingling of generations.
“I am very worried that some of the things we are doing are beginning to isolate older people in the way that we build the facilities that we do.
“All this raises some very big questions about cost, the size of the population and the longevity, the provision of care and use of very expensive technology and medicine to keep them alive is going to put some serious stress on our systems. In the next six years alone, we will need to provide care for up to 20,000 more people due to the ageing population, with fundamental implications for the location and nature of care and the cost.”
The aged residential care sector’s client base is also going to become much more diverse in the next 20 years depending on location. Already around 27% of all New Zealanders are born overseas and that will increase.
And by 2040, the population of European/Pakeha over 65s will drop by around 17% with a corresponding rise in other ethnicities. By 2040 around 25% of the population aged over 65 will identify as Asian – larger than the Maori community in the country.
“The aged care sector is going to have to consider how they might appropriately meet the needs of older members of immigrant and ethnic minority communities. That means making sure they can speak with others from their language and cultural communities is vital. Food that they are familiar with would help.”
And indeed, as a DiversityWorks NZ judge, Professor Spoonley says he’s has seen how many facilities are responding and has been very impressed.
The aging population is also underscored by declining fertility with women having children later in life. Professor Spoonley says that in the next five-year period, there will be 28,000 fewer children leaving secondary school in New Zealand.
“Immigration then becomes the tool for supplementing our population. It is how we get our skills. More than 60% of migrants come under the skilled migrant category. So net migration is critical to New Zealand and to the aged care sector.”
Likewise, he would like to see New Zealand implement continuous education, a system of training and retraining for an older workforce, to build new skills as artificial intelligence and automation increasingly replace human labour.
“In the UK for example where truck drivers are now mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s, money has been set aside for retraining in anticipation of autonomous vehicles.
“We have a rapidly ageing population, but government and society are woefully unprepared. Longer lives can have a great benefit, but it will be a collective failure if we don’t anticipate what’s coming and address it. So let’s have a conversation about it.”