New Zealand could lead age-friendly agenda

Being a long way from anywhere with a small population can be isolating but it can also present opportunities.

A leading expert on the ageing revolution, Dr Alex Kalache, says precisely because New Zealand is small and has a highly urbanised population, it is well placed to adopt new ideas.

The co-president of the International Longevity Centre in Brazil has long promoted the concept of age-friendly communities, with hundreds of cities worldwide taking on the challenge.

Work on the concept is beginning in a number of places around New Zealand, including Kapiti, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Tauranga and Napier, and there is also interest in pursuing the venture by other areas.

The emphasis is on creating a community for all ages, be it from wide ramps which work for both wheelchairs and pushchairs, to good transport links, access to information and strong social connections between generations, among other priorities.

Although New Zealand is relatively new to the age-friendly mission, it has certain advantages, says Dr Kalache.

Alex Kalache leans on balcony

“It is a country that can easily mobilise because of the scale – only 4 ½ million, highly urbanised so you do have communities that are more isolated but the vast majority of the population lives in cities.

“Ideas can be spread very quickly in a much more profound and influential way than would be the case in a large country like Canada or the States or Europe where you have the density, too big.”

He says New Zealanders are also adept at the use of social media.

“It’s a very well connected country in terms of the use of the internet so I think that ideas could spread very well, very quickly.”

With a rapidly ageing population, ie around one in four New Zealanders will be 65-plus by 2036, a focus on being age friendly is becoming more important.

“If we put together the two most important demographic trends of the 21st century - you have ageing on one side and urbanisation on the other side,” says Dr Kalache.

“Put two and two together, you have more and more people getting older and living in a city.

“I think what happens in the city has influence around the country.”

Age friendly in action

Dr Kalache worked at the World Health Organisation from 1995 to 2008, and from 2002 developed the philosophy of active ageing, with age-friendly communities a practical outcome of the concept.

Younger person helps older person at computer

He has now had some time and space to reflect on how it has worked and what needs to happen next for, what has been for the most part, a community led venture.

“What I say now, given the experience of living and working in many different countries, is that increasingly I’m absolutely concerned that we need inter-generational dialogue.

“We also need opportunities for the young and the old to get together and to discuss what is good for everybody.

“In the same way that technology can be a divide, we also need to use the opportunity for those that have the skills to reach out.”

Dr Kalache says some cities around the world are sponsoring opportunities for the young to train the old and those that are old to share their knowledge.

Respect and rights

The ageing expert says changing demographics globally bring challenges and opportunities.

“I want to be respected in my old age not because I have needs but because first and foremost, I have rights,” he says.

“Now, this is based on listening to people at a local level, at a municipal level.

“A city that wants to become more age friendly – the first thing that it needs to do is listen to the voice of older people so that we can have the specificity, so that we can do things that are meaningful and considered important by the older people that live there.”

Dr Kalache says there needs to be a double-pronged approach.

“You need not only the bottom-up approach, you also need the top down.

“So we have to listen to the voice but you have to invoke the means of authorities – the mayor, municipal council, whoever is the structure in the government so that you have a response to those concerns.

“What does it mean in terms of housing policy, access to information, access to knowledge, lifelong learning, the right to work, social inclusion, accessibility in terms of the physical space and public buildings, and beaches and museums and so on?

“Identify the problems, but also the advantages, the challenges, the recommendations and then we can act on them.”

Map showing NZ's rapidly ageing population in districts

He believes New Zealand has a unique opportunity.

“When I reflect how this concept, this ideology has grown, I think you also need some policies at the macro level because the mayor or the municipality doesn’t have the power to change the structure of work, or education or even access to information.

“This is why if we have a country like New Zealand innovating and thinking what is necessary for all citizens, not only those that live in big cities, to make them age friendly, to create a national framework so we can take these ideas and ideology further.

“It could experiment with age-friendly cities but also create an age-friendly country, an age-friendly New Zealand.”