Retirement means isolation and frailty, study says - so live now

By Susan Edmunds

Increasing numbers of New Zealanders are working and saving hard for their retirement. But new research reveals that when they get there, loneliness, sickness and the threat of crime can upset their best-laid plans. Experts say: eat, drink and be merry - for tomorrow you may be dead

Trentham Military Camp tailor Barry Sarney, 78, has just signed a contract for another two years' work. Photo / Getty Images
Trentham Military Camp tailor Barry Sarney, 78, has just signed a contract for another two years' work. Photo / Getty Images

Bruce Tebbutt reckons you couldn't find a much better retirement than his. After years running a fencing company, the 61-year-old and his wife, Lesley, retired six years ago to spend their final years seeing the world.

They spend seven or eight months of every year on their yacht in the Mediterranean. This year, the yacht is moored in Turkey, next year it will be Sicily.

Retirement has been everything he hoped for, Tebbutt says. "I can't really imagine having to go back to work."

His younger years were spent working hard and this retirement is the just reward. "This is our OE. We didn't have one because we just worked. But being older, we like to do it with the comforts of home. We have saved enough to keep going so long as our tenants keep paying the rent."

For many working people, a retirement such as the Tebbutts' shimmers on the horizon like a mirage. Is retirement all it's cracked up to be?

A new survey by the Commission for Financial Literacy and Retirement Income finds that as people get older, it becomes harder for them to leave their homes. Reasons include frailty, declining eyesight making driving difficult, limited budgets or the death of the household's traditional driver.

Although people aged over 60 are significantly less likely to experience crime, they are more likely to fear it, says the study's author, David Preston.

"The physical and emotional frailty of many older elderly means that the consequences of victimhood may be more severe," Preston says. "Hence, security is a legitimate concern for older people."

Studies show that despite our best plans, New Zealanders' retirement years are more likely to be blighted by sickness, loneliness, disability or lack of money than spent travelling the world.

As Sir Paul Holmes said of his Hawke's Bay property shortly before his death from cancer earlier this year: "The idea was I would build this farm and retire here, live a full and wonderful life basking in my former great career - but along came a fly in the ointment."

New Zealand's superannuation scheme is one of the world's most generous, referred to by the Retirement Commission and Retirement Policy and Research Centre as a "national treasure" that vastly improves the lot of many of the country's elderly. Many New Zealanders depend on it as their only source of retirement income.

A person living alone receives $349 a week in superannuation, which goes up to $357 on April 1. Forty per cent of Kiwi retirees live on super alone, another 20 per cent earn up to $100 a week on top of that and another 40 per cent have still more money coming in.

The biggest difference between New Zealand's pension and its equivalents overseas is that it isn't means tested. Unlike Australia, you can save as much as you like, earn as much as you like and own as much as you like and you'll still get the same superannuation payments as your neighbours.

Michael Littlewood, of the Retirement Policy Centre at the University of Auckland, says economic hardship rates among New Zealand's older people are low compared to other countries because of the pension. Only the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have similarly low levels of hardship.

Australia, where workers are forced to save for retirement, has the fourth-highest level of hardship among developed countries.

The statistics bear out this country's generosity. A study by Littlewood's centre shows NZ Superannuation for a single person living alone is 46 per cent of New Zealand's per capita GDP.

The same pension for a single person in Iceland is 10 per cent and in Britain 13 per cent of per capita GDP. Just 6 to 8 per cent of NZ elderly are classed as impoverished, compared to roughly 20 per cent of children.

And, because of the pension, many New Zealanders are putting too much aside for retirement. They save too much, expecting the same outgoings in retirement they have while working.

"You don't need as much as when you were bringing up your kids, paying off your mortgage or running two or three cars. Your living expenses reduce," says Littlewood.

Several risk factors have been identified that determine how well off people will be in retirement, apart from a decent savings plan. People are much more likely to be poor if they have suffered divorce, health problems, debt, rent or unemployment in the 10 years before age 65.

"If you've got housing fixed and you're getting super - that's something we as a country should treasure," Littlewood says. "Your basic needs are covered."

About 85 per cent of people over 65 own their own homes outright.

The SuperGold card gives retirees free off-peak public transport plus consumer discounts, and about half of retirees also have a Community Services Card for cheap health care, compared to about a quarter of the working-age population. This is an income-tested card, but doesn't factor in how much the recipient has stashed away in assets or in the bank.

Of course, statisticians may say our pensioners are not impoverished; that does not mean New Zealand retirees feel comfortably off.

A study by Massey University and Westpac found 47 per cent of retirees say they do not have enough money to meet their needs. A third are not satisfied with their retirement and almost half say it is not meeting their expectations. More than one-third almost never eat takeaways, two-thirds go to a restaurant no more than a few times a year, and 22 per cent never went overseas.

Researcher Claire Matthews says most of the dissatisfaction was financial. Some respondents had their savings wiped out by finance company collapses or had been affected by the Christchurch earthquakes.

"The measurement for hardship tends to be quite severe - you have to be in a high level of hardship to register," Matthews says. "Our survey was asking 'how do you feel?' How they feel can be quite different to any objective measure."

Barry Sarney, almost 78, says anyone who wants to quit work at 60 is just lazy. He has been a tailor all his life and has spent the past 20 years at Trentham Military Camp. He has just signed another two-year term.

Sarney says he works partly out of a sense of obligation - there are few tailors left these days. His wife died 13 years ago and if he weren't working, he reckons he'd be vegetating or bored out of his mind with clubs and old people's groups. "I'd find things to do during the week if I wasn't working but I'd only meet old people. At the military camp, I meet young people."

It's no secret that fewer New Zealanders are choosing to clock out of work when they turn 65. Because we were one of the first countries in the world to eliminate a mandatory retirement age, we also have some of the highest rates of people over 65 in the workforce. More than 35 per cent of people aged between 65 and 69 still work.

Bill Atkinson, the 85-year-old chairman of Grey Power, says our ideas of what is old are constantly changing. "Sixty is the new 40 for baby boomers because life expectancies have extended quite a bit."

Once, people retired because they were too infirm to work anymore. But the number of deaths in people aged 65-69 dropped from 2989 in 1981 to 1022 in 2006. That's a 75 per cent drop over 25 years.

When he was younger, Atkinson never expected to live to 85 but now he's there he is expecting a fair bit of time yet. Old is still anyone 10 years older than him, he reckons.

"I can't understand people wanting to retire at 60 - they must be bone idle," says Sarney, whose pension, with his annual salary, comes in at about $45,000. He says that's ample. The jury is still out on whether he'll sign another contract when this one comes to an end. "Each time I talk about retiring they ask me to stay on."

One of the biggest things that knocks a happy retirement off course is sickness. Claire Matthews says many people cancel private health insurance at 65 because it becomes too expensive, so they are sometimes stuck on public waiting lists for some time, in pain.

In Greymouth, that's a problem Harold Newby is familiar with. He's nearing 90 but has little to celebrate. Paralysed in his right arm and blind in one eye, he can barely get off the sofa.

Newby is despairing. When he started work in coal mines as a 16-year-old, his visions of retirement were of elderly men fishing or yarning with mates. But Newby is spending what should be his golden years pleading to move into a rest home. He has to use his weaker left hand to shave and struggles to shower.

He says he just feels ripped off, not just by the authorities who won't sign off on a move into a rest home, nor pay for him to have more than two hours' care a week, but by circumstance. His wife died in 1978, he has barely any visitors and he cannot go anywhere. There are no friends to have a quiet beer with. "I can't even walk to my mate's funeral. A lot of the miners I knew didn't get to pension age. I'm the oldest one still here."

People over 65 represent about a third of Auckland hospital admissions, despite making up just 12 per cent of the city's population.

A Ministry of Social Development report found 40 per cent of people over 65 had hypertension in the past year, 30 per cent had rheumatism or arthritis, 22.8 per cent had back pain and 40 per cent had trouble walking significant distances.

The Massey University study found higher rates of hazardous drinking among New Zealand's retired population than in the US or in Brazil.

Mental health problems, too, can upset plans. The study found about 8 per cent of retirees are depressed. The poorer and lonelier they are, the more likely to be depressed.

North Shore man Alfred Hassencamp, who is pioneering intergenerational living, says isolation is a big problem. He estimates half of the elderly people who live alone are depressed, and the older you are, the more likely you are to live alone.

More than half of people older than 85 live by themselves. Just 5 per cent live in residential care.

Even Tebbutt, who lives in permanent summer, admits there are mental hurdles to get over in retirement. He had always run his own business, and when he no longer had a business card to brandish, it was a strange feeling. "In some respects you become a bit of a non-person, you don't belong anywhere."

Newby hopes he'll be allowed into a rest home soon. He does not want to burden his adult daughters by moving in with them. The worst thing for him is not being able to join in. "I'm useless. I can't even dig the garden. I'm no one now."

Living in fear of crime

Her eye blackened and swollen and the skin on her face tight and bruised, the 71-year-old victim of an attack in her Kawerau home was unrecognisable.

She had opened her door expecting a relative and was beaten by a man who demanded cash and stole her car.

The December 29 attack generated huge attention nationwide, and was featured on this week's Police 10-7 TV show.

Victim Support chief executive Tony Paine says it would also have struck fear into many elderly people living alone. "This sort of attack is deeply worrying to us all but mercifully rare."

He says police statistics show elderly people are less likely to be the victims of crime, but when they are, the effects are profound.

Elderly crime victims are more likely to move into a rest home earlier and have a shorter life expectancy, research shows.

"Crime destabilises your world."

Paine says there is more fear of crime among the elderly, especially those who live alone, and that can be debilitating.

His organisation is also seeing more older people who have been the victim of fraud "or the loss of life savings in the grey area between fraud and badly managed investment".

People had killed themselves after finding all their savings gone, he said. "It's becoming increasingly common."

Louise Collins, of Age Concern, says elderly people are more likely to encounter abuse from a family member than anyone else. Her organisation handles 1500 such cases a year, but she estimates 85 per cent of cases go unreported.

Adult children are the main offenders, using emotional blackmail and psychological abuse, often to get money out of their parents. "A lot of it is a lack of respect for older people."

- Herald on Sunday

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