To mark today’s International Day of Older Persons, Simon Collins investigates the social implications of the blossoming phenomenon of retirement villages.

'Like living in Club Med" or "siloing a generation". Retirement villages attract strong feelings for and against.

Villages are sprouting everywhere. Sharebrokers Forsyth Barr list 20 new villages with 4643 homes under construction or planned in Auckland alone.

Real estate researchers Jones Lang LaSalle say resident numbers nationally have jumped by a third in two years from 24,700 in 2012 to 32,900 last year. About one in eight New Zealanders aged 75 and over now lives in a retirement village.

To their residents, the villages are like reaching paradise early.

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"It's like living in Club Med or on a cruise ship every day," says Steve Proctor, at 66 one of the youngest residents in Settlers Albany, a 186-unit village at Albany Village where a final 60-unit block is now under construction.

"My wife and I came here in January 2014. We sold our house because we could see a lot of maintenance coming up. We came here and thought, 'What a lifestyle!' I play bowls, I play table tennis, I play pool and snooker."

But others worry about what Age Concern Counties Manukau executive officer Wendy Bremner calls "siloing a generation that is separate from the community".

"You lose the opportunity for intergenerational support in a community, and you remove people that are around in a community on a day to day basis," she says. "Maybe a young mum might say, 'Can you look after my toddler while I go and do something?' You are taking away that opportunity for intergenerational discovery, so the neighbours miss the opportunity to support the older people and the older people miss the opportunity to support their younger neighbours."

Driving forces

Until recently, most elderly people in all countries lived with their adult children, grandchildren and other relatives. This has changed in developed countries in just two generations, for three reasons.

ROTORUA DAILY POST
29 Sep, 2015 10:59am
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First, many families have scattered around the world. Waikato University sociologist Peggy Koopman-Boyden says it's not realistic to expect elderly people to leave their own friends and networks to join adult children in another town or another country.

"Moving from Hamilton to Auckland to live with your children is almost the worst thing you can do," she says. "If you move away from your friends circle and try to make new friends at 85, it's a bit tricky."

Second, most women of working age are now in paid work so they are no longer available to look after their parents.

And third, older people are staying healthy and active for much longer. They can, and want to, stay in charge of their own lives.

"I couldn't imagine going and living with my children," says Marj Tyson, 73, who moved with her husband Rob into Settlers Albany four years ago. "I wouldn't want to live in their kitchen."

Two shorter-term factors are driving the current supercharged demand. One is the big group of "baby-boomers" born just after World War II now reaching their 70s. The other is Auckland's sky-high house prices. Forsyth Barr research director Jeremy Simpson says the hot housing market makes it easy for older people to sell their existing homes at prices that let them buy into a retirement village and have plenty left over for travel or savings.

The 694 retirement village units consented in Auckland in the year to August made up 8.1 per cent of all 8615 new dwelling consents in the region, helping to ease the housing shortage. Nationally, retirement villages represented 7.1 per cent of new dwelling consents.

Advantages

On the immaculate bowling green at Settlers Albany, it's easy to see the attraction. Although almost surrounded by apartment blocks, it is eerily quiet and peaceful. Palm trees separate the bowlers from a croquet lawn and a petanque court.

Inside the main building, a vast carpeted hall contains a stage used for drama and concerts, a restaurant serving an average of 60 diners three days a week and a wide-screen TV lounge and bar well patronised during Rugby World Cup games. Upstairs there's another big room used for cards, indoor bowls, table tennis and art classes.

There's a library run by a residents' committee, a theatre run by the village's two groups of film enthusiasts, a well-equipped gym run by former Olympic weightlifter Precious McKenzie and a swimming pool well used by grandchildren visiting in the school holidays.

There's even a blokes' shed out the back stocked with tools brought in by the residents.

It's secure.

"The gate closes at night, there's a code," says Rob Tyson. "People can't get into your apartment area unless you let them."

But the world is nearby if you want it and there's a bus stop at the gate.

"You can walk up to the Albany Village," says Lex Delaney, 80, who chairs the residents' committee.

"You can do the [Albany] mall in 10 minutes," says Doug Bishop, 72.

And people look after one another. The Tysons, who lived in Africa and Britain before coming to New Zealand to be near their family, have been overwhelmed with support.

"I had back surgery shortly after coming in," Mrs Tyson says. "We'd only been here three months, but I had so much kindness shown to me - people bringing food, sending cards. I had never ever had that in my home in Greenhithe in eight years."

Disadvantages

For residents, the two main worries are the financial structure and what might happen if eventually they can't remain independent. Financially, most villages sell a "licence to occupy" a unit. When people move out or die, they or their estate typically get back only what they originally paid for the licence minus about 30 per cent which effectively covers the cost of renovating the unit for the next occupants.

Forsyth Barr says licences are typically priced at around 50 to 80 per cent of house values in the area, so they go up with house price inflation. But that capital gain is captured by the village owner, not the residents. In addition, residents pay fees to cover costs such as rates, insurance, maintenance, gardening and security. At Settlers Albany the fee has just gone up to $689 a month for each unit.

Social researcher Rev Charles Waldegrave says many seniors are being "ripped off" and suggests people search out the few villages where the residents own their own units and keep the capital gain. But at Settlers Albany they think the price is worth paying.

"My son said, 'Dad, you are buying a lifestyle, and you're paying for that in the loss of capital gain'," Mr Bishop says.

Age Concern North Shore executive officer Janferie Bryce-Chapman says another concern is that care facilities may not be adequate when today's healthy "young elderly" eventually need care, even if there is a hospital on site.

"We had a case where a husband and wife lived in an independent unit. One partner deteriorated, but there were no vacancies in the rest home on that site," she says. "So what they envisaged - being in cooee of each other - didn't happen."

Professor Koopman-Boyden shares Wendy Bremner's concerns about age segregation.

"We are losing intergenerational contact. A lot of people don't know anybody over 70."

Kevin Lamb of Age Concern Auckland says: "The trouble I have with retirement villages is that society as a whole doesn't begin to see them as the answer [for caring for the elderly]. The issue is that we end up marginalising older people."

Community support

In fact, most older people do still live in their own homes in the community, and want to stay there. Grey Power Auckland president Anne-Marie Coury says society needs to support them by making buildings, public transport and other facilities accessible for people who may need walking sticks or mobility scooters to get around.

Ms Bremner says communities could be made safer for older people by tearing down high fences.

"We need to get rid of all these fences so you can actually see your neighbours.

"You can't even say hello to your neighbour when you go out and put your washing on the line," she says.

Mr Lamb says planners should consider the needs of the elderly in any new development.

"I have read every local board plan. It's very hard to find any reference to older people in any of them."

He says there is also a desperate need for more social housing, not just for the 40 per cent of people aged 65-plus who have virtually no income except NZ super, but also for younger low-income families.

He sees no need to separate the two groups. "I would like to see at the heart of the planning process the integration of older people within communities," he says.

Alfred Hassencamp, a 73-year-old retired researcher in Browns Bay, promotes a European model of "intergenerational living" where people of all ages live in an apartment complex with some shared spaces where they can meet one another.

"The main idea is to have intergenerational communities where people know each other and support each other in a neighbourly way," he says.

Mr Waldegrave says councils and non-government agencies need community workers to support older people's leisure pursuits as well as their basic needs.

"People need to have a quality of life - transport, leisure activities, linking people up with each other," he says. "We need high-level gardens where people don't have to bend down. There could be shared kitchens where you can cook in your own house if you want to but there is a shared kitchen where people could meet. There's a whole range of things that could facilitate it."

'Bad street' safer with seniors

 Neighbours the Ekueta family (from left, Pouta, 4, Noataga, 3, Saleima, and Peia, 6) and Kay McGregor chat over the fence. Mrs McGregor, 74, flats in a house owned by the Bays Community Housing Trust. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Neighbours the Ekueta family (from left, Pouta, 4, Noataga, 3, Saleima, and Peia, 6) and Kay McGregor chat over the fence. Mrs McGregor, 74, flats in a house owned by the Bays Community Housing Trust. Photo / Jason Oxenham

When Saleima and Ekueta Uilama moved into a state house in Northcote's Tonar St it was "a really bad street".

"You hear people fighting on the road. My kids can't even sleep in the night time," Mrs Uilama says.

Then in April last year five elderly women moved into a house built by the Bays Community Housing Trust on the next-door section where an old house had burned down. Suddenly the young people were quieter.

"Since they moved here there's no more fighting, no more noise," Mrs Uilama says. "The young people really respect the old people. It's good that we have a place like that for the old ones, it makes me safe as well."

The house, and another next door which opened later last year, are part of a flatting for seniors strategy by the housing trust to support older people who would otherwise feel isolated living alone.

"It's reimagining your neighbourhood," trust relationships manager Robyn Barry said. "It's what community is about. It's not about segregated groups of like-minded people getting together. It's about diversity together."

Kay McGregor, 74, one of the first residents, says the trust prepared well. "When we first went in, someone in the community pinched some of our stuff," she says. "Within two days all of that stuff was back because the trust worked hard. They had open days, barbecues, so the community would get used to having us there."

The women make a point of engaging with their neighbours.

"One Tongan lady takes her children to the school as dressed up as you can. I reached out and said, 'You do a wonderful job taking your children to school'," Mrs McGregor says. "So now we are smiling."

Margaret Castle, 75, says she always says hello to groups of youths. "I make a point of acknowledging them so they don't think I'm a silly old fart."

Mrs McGregor plays cards at the local community house Onepoto Awhina. Mrs Castle attends a multi-agency group that meets there. The house's community worker takes another woman from the trust houses to the shops and hospital appointments. The women have also volunteered to mentor young people at a community garden being set up at the local library.

Just having them there means the Uilama family, who are from Tuvalu, can stay longer when they visit Mrs Uilama's parents in West Auckland.

"We used to stay there only a few hours and come back because I don't trust kids breaking into the house."

The Commission for Financial Capability provides independent advice on retirement villages: cffc.org. nz/retirement/retirement-villages/