What are the secrets to a long, healthy and fulfilling life? It's a question many of us ask as we strive to live longer and better. It's also the question researchers set out to answer in a ground-breaking study of nearly 1000 people aged over 80 in the Bay of Plenty. The study, led by Auckland University researchers, started almost a decade ago and focused on Māori and non-Māori in the Bay of Plenty and Lakes areas. The results? The study has uncovered common traits that helped them live longer. Samantha Olley reports.
Avoiding fast food and takeaways, having gardens, volunteering and keeping active.
These are some of the common attributes of nearly 1000 people who lived past the age of 80, according to a study believed to be the first of its kind.
The study, Living in Advanced Age: a Cohort Study in New Zealand (LiLACS NZ), recruited 421 Māori people, aged 80 to 90, and 516 non-Māori participants, aged 85, from within the Bay of Plenty and Lakes District Health Board areas.
It started in 2010 and researchers interviewed participants at various times to uncover their similarities.
Some of the other common characteristics included helping others, keeping in touch with family and - for Māori - having knowledge of tikanga and speaking te reo.
Korowai Aroha Health Centre's registered Rotorua nurses Kim Bellerby and Sean Scott and quality manager Rose Whetu-Boldarin interviewed participants in their homes, for about two hours at a time, to record their diet and medical histories and carry out physical assessments.
Bellerby says the study gave real-life examples of good health and wellbeing in old age to motivate others.
Whetu-Boldarin says most people she visited "appeared fitter, healthier and more mentally astute than those a lot younger".
Bellerby saw that one of the key dietary differences was the lack of fast food and takeaways.
"They all had gardens and cooked preserves. Their active and physical daily lives [which included] gardening, walking, hunting and fishing, and then their nutritional side meant we could categorically say 'the reason you've lived for so long is that you've not had takeaways, you've been active every day, you've had consistently good food, but you've worked it off, because you were busy'."
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Delia Faulkner's life mirrors many of the study's key findings.
The 87-year-old, who took part in the study, lives on a one-acre section in Bowentown.
Her house is near her marae, Otāwhiwhi, and she often visits.
She still mows her lawns, tends her garden, drives, and gets her own weekly groceries.
As a kaumātua, there are plenty of rangatahi she can call on if she needs a hand, but she rarely does.
"Independence is really important to me," she says.
"If I just sat around and did nothing, everything else would do nothing."
Faulkner values the wisdom that comes with old age.
"You know things other people don't know yet."
She carries some negative experiences with her but has learned from them.
"That's where the forgiveness comes in. The younger you learn that the better your life will be."
When asked why the research is important, she says: "Everybody's going to grow old, you're only going one way."
Ōpōtiki kaumātua Christina Ellis is slightly younger than the study cohort but helped connect the researchers with potential participants.
She says staying active is essential.
"I've got friends, more than a dozen friends still working in their late 70s or 80s, working in the gardens, or looking after spouses who won't let anyone else do it. I have a friend, she's 88, and she's still driving, and caring for her land. She's my inspiration."
Her marae commitments and her love for weaving keep her alert.
"I teach all ages and ethnicities to weave, about doing the korowai. Anyone who wants to learn."
The Ministry of Social Development predicts that by 2034, there will be nearly 180,000 people aged 85 and over in New Zealand, and almost a quarter of the country's population will be over 65.
The Ministry of Health funded the LiLACS study to help policymakers design future services, to help younger Kiwis plan ahead, to give elderly New Zealanders the chance to share their wisdom and to allow for future comparisons between countries, ethnicities and generations.
A spokesman said "Given the well-documented inequities in health outcomes for Māori across many indicators, research initiatives such as this ... are highly relevant."
Already three "long reports" and 11 "short reports" of the study's findings have been published, and there are more to come.
Researchers chose the Bay of Plenty as the sampling area because of its wide distribution of Māori elders, the balance of rural and urban settings and the high number of te reo speakers.
It is believed to be the first longitudinal study of an indigenous population in the world.
Kirsten Stone, chief executive of Rotorua Area Primary Health Services (RAPHS), says the study views health holistically.
"It covers everything from family dynamics to medical histories ... When we look at health, we need to remember where people come from, their stories and life experiences. This study took a unique approach to that."
Dr Karen Hayman, a University of Auckland research fellow for the study, noticed dementia was a widespread concern for recruits.
"We have shared with participants advice about keeping physically and mentally active, sources of nutrition in the food they eat and ways they can keep their brains stimulated to stave off dementia and depression.
"The feedback to participants always sparked their own discussions and advice to us about things we did not ask them - many were just so interested in helping."
The stories behind the data
Wright worked in the kiwifruit industry until she was 79.
She was part of the study before her death in 2015, at age 85.
She was born near Ruamatā marae, was of Ngāti Uenukukopako descent and had her tangi at the marae.
Wright spent 38 years in Ōpōtiki and had a lifelong passion for netball.
She was a New Zealand referee, went to Masters Games around the world, and in her last few years of life, the Ōpōtiki District Council named its new sports pavilion after her.
Her daughter, Noleen Owen, says Wright "kept busy all the time" in her elderly years.
"She still had a lot to do with netball. She loved doing her crosswords, too, and she looked after Dad before he died. She was very social and very active around the Bay of Plenty. There was never a dull moment, even when she was unwell."
Owen joined her mother when she went to some of the study luncheons.
"She was enthusiastic about the research and its purpose."
Basil Kings, 94, was asked to join the study by the University of Auckland Society for alumni.
He was happy to oblige - he thinks it's amazing people like him can live for so long, and he feels fortunate.
Kings has been retired for 35 years, and every year he makes a list of 15 to 20 things he would like to do that year, everything from painting the house to travelling somewhere.
"Every day I have got up and had something to do. That's how we've lived our lives. Not necessarily always busy, but achieving something."
He has always been a keen exerciser.
"Even still, I ensure I do exercise three times a week, and until last year I was going to the gym. I played golf until a year ago, and I try to have a game of golf croquet every week. I think it's a very important element of living comfortably in your later years."
He says he'd always had a "fairly optimistic outlook on life," and has recently been caring for his wife.
The former teacher and educationalist has tried to continue speaking German throughout his retirement. He drinks plenty of water and eats a lot of vegetables.
Leiana Reynolds was born in 1948, so she was too young to be a participant in the study, but she was recruited as a Te Rōpū Kaitiaki o ngā tikanga Māori, one of the kaumātua who oversee the cultural and ethical components.
She is of Ngāti Rehia and Tūwharetoa descent and said being a kaitiaki was a huge eye-opener.
"Not only to help their research, but I have also learned a lot. It is a huge honour for our culture to be given so much attention. Traditionally, we keep health information to ourselves. Some people found some of the questions invasive, but it was a healing thing."
Reynolds believes singing is an integral part of Māori wellness at any age and still does a lot now she's retired.
She also keeps herself busy gardening and preserving food.
"We started putting veggies in the freezer at Christmas time. At the moment I am making jellies and jams from peaches and grapes. You've got to get stuck in otherwise they just rot, or you have to feed them to the animals."
Reynolds has never found it hard to make friends.
"I've got them everywhere."
Lawrence and Nuki Hemana
The Hemanas were some of the study's earliest recruits, after being approached by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Pikiao Trust.
Lawrence died in 2011 at age 80, and Nuki lived to age 88 before her death in February last year.
They spoke to the Rotorua Daily Post about the study in 2010.
"It was a lot of questions, mostly health ... but it wasn't all medical," Nuki said. "They wanted to know our diet, our children. They wanted to know our careers, what sort of careers we had in our lifetime."
They said they enjoyed being involved and urged others to take part at the time.
Lawrence said studies of people his age were vital as they would help younger generations.
In a promotional video made in 2013 to promote the study, Shirley Smith, Charles (Charlie) Karauria and James (Jim) Dunning explained why they thought it was important. Dunning has since died.
Smith said she felt her age group could provide valuable insights to younger generations.
"We know, if they go along a certain road, they'll get into trouble."
She said being a participant in the study made her "feel part of something, something that's good quality".
Karauria says when he grew up, the theme was "if you want to know anything, sit at the feet of your elders, and listen".
He says his grandchildren enjoyed his company more than he had been able to enjoy his our grandparents.
"Because they had to work, work, work ... to survive."
He tries to keep his brain active in old age and do what he's always done but at a slower pace.
Since the 2013 interview, Karauria's son and daughter-in-law have moved into his Mt Maunganui home to help care for him.
His message to younger generations is that loving one another is the greatest thing they can aspire to.
"Money will only get you things, but it will never buy you happiness."
"A lot of younger people probably haven't got a clue about the problems older people face, and they'll eventually face too, of course," Dunning said.
"There's no point in calling me 'a silly old bugger' because one of these days they'll be 'a silly old bugger' too."
When he discussed his diet, he said he was a "meat and three veggies kind of bloke".
"My food is wholesome, I suppose you could say."