September 10, 2010

NEW ZEALAND: Auckland's Elderly Population - A Future Concern

AUCKLAND, New Zealand / New Zealand Herald / Features / September 10, 2010

By Fran O'Sullivan

Here is the conundrum. Will the wealthy elite who comprise a good slice of Auckland's aging baby boomer generation "downsize" and "downshift" from their Herne Bay houses and Mt Eden villas into upmarket new retirement villages? Move to Waiheke, or "up the coast", or, simply sell-up and move offshore to live close to their children and grandchildren?

It's these sorts of lifestyle choices that will bedevil Auckland Council's planners when they start work on the first "spatial plan" for the Super City. The rapidly burgeoning "elder care" industry is already sending signals it may not have the capacity to cope with the aged explosion.

The reality is that well-heeled Aucklanders do have choices. But so do their children, many of whom have chosen to build their working lives outside New Zealand. The upshot is that they may choose to move offshore to avert loneliness.

There are other issues.

Demographic projections indicate that while Auckland is "relatively young" compared to other parts of New Zealand, big pockets of the Super City will not be able to escape the age trap. For instance, right now Rodney District is the only Auckland territorial authority where the share of the population aged above 65 years is higher than the national average.

By 2026, more than one-fifth of Rodney's population will be aged over 65 according to Statistics NZ population projections. Franklin will have the next highest percentage of 65-pluses at 20 per cent. Following are North Shore (18 per cent), Papakura (18 per cent), Waitakere (16 per cent) Manukau (15 per cent) and Auckland City (14 per cent).

The good news is that compared to New Zealand's projected average (20 per cent) - Auckland will remain relatively young, with just 16 per cent forecast to be aged above 65 years by 2026.

If you want to take a look into the future consider wealthy Japan.

Japan has a big aged cohort. Estimates point to as many as 41,000 centenarians. But it also has a low birth rate and many elderly Japanese don't have sufficient family members to care for them.

Citizens were horrified when a man believed to be Tokyo's oldest male at 111 had actually been dead for over 30 years. His mummified remains were found at his home.

In response to concerns over missing elderly, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has launched a pilot program called "Silver Policebox" - a network of places where older people can go to seek help.

A report for the Geriatric Medicine department of the University of Auckland's faculty of medicine paints a grim picture.

Its 2008 "census" found residential care bed numbers among participating facilities had increased by only 3 per cent in the last 20 years in Auckland, despite a 43 per cent increase in the population over the age of 65 years.

It also found:

* In the last 10 years, there has been a 13 per cent increase in the number of private hospital beds, and a converse 13 per cent decrease in rest home beds.

* Since 1988, the total number of beds per thousand people over the age of 65 years has steadily declined from 74 to 53.

* The proportion of the population over the age of 85 years living in aged residential care has declined from 40 per cent to 27 per cent.

* The median age of residents has risen from 83 to 86 years.

* Dependency, as indicated by mobility, continence, and cognitive function, has significantly increased for the total population residing in aged care facilities.

* Those with high dependency has increased from 36 per cent of the total residential aged care population in 1988, to 52 per cent in 1998, and increased further to 56 per cent in 2008.

This is clearly an issue that cries out for joint action by Auckland Council and government agencies to ensure sufficient social infrastructure and care facilities are available for the coming aged boom.

There is also a shortage of aged care workers.

So, what is an elderly person to do? For those who want to stay in their own homes, technology may well be part of their future.

The University of Auckland is trialing the use of a robot called Charlie at Selwyn Village. It is designed to do simple tasks usually done by an aged care worker: take vital signs, remind patients to take medication. Even "chatting".

The robot can get about an elderly person's house unaided. The camera on the top of his screen allows for instant face recognition.

With the elderly population expected to almost double in the next 20 years, researchers believe robots - rather than people carers - may become necessary.

* From the New Zealand Herald feature, 'Project Auckland - our city'
Also read: Population boom to cause big headaches