Ageing seniors go ‘flatting’ again to make ends meet

LONDON: Ageing seniors are only just surviving as they go ‘flatting’ again to be able to make ends meet.

Ageing New Zealanders are heading into “the eye of the storm” which the Government “cannot afford to ignore”, say experts, as spiralling costs swallow up Super, with calls for it to be increased at 80.

86-year-old Palmerston North man Rusty Harris says he wouldn’t call it “living” on Super.

“Surviving. Only just, with big sacrifices. Not talking luxuries, but basics – eating and having somewhere to live.”

Rents in Manawatū/Whanganui where Harris worked in the community for 40 years saw the sharpest increase in March, up 10% to $550 a week, according to the latest Trade Me price index, which showed rents reaching record highs in places across the motu.

Harris used to own his own home but after a relationship breakup found himself having to rent in his 80s with a mobility scooter.

“I only had bread for lunch and dinner. Everything was so expensive – food, power, that it’s very easy to get into very unhealthy habits of not eating and no hot water. It was so stressful – and ageing is a mental game as well as physical.”

He’s “lucky” to now flat with 11 other seniors in a community house provided by registered charity Abbeyfield, which has 14 homes across Aotearoa.

Lunch is now meat, four veg, and dessert every day (house favourite is the apple and rhubarb crumble and custard), with breakfast and dinner also homemade by the house cook.

“It’s transformed my life, taking terrible stress away,” says Harris.

He pays a weekly fee of $440, which has just increased $40, which includes rent, food, power, cleaning, and maintenance. His weekly Super is around $500, which leaves him $60 for his own spends on anything from health, transport (he has a mobility scooter), clothes and personal items. When he was renting privately he rarely had a couple of dollars left, he says.

Demand for spaces has never been higher across the country, says Abbeyfield executive director Susan Jenkins.

Enquiries include those tipped into homelessness because of spiralling costs to maintain and insure their own home, or unable to find affordable rentals.

“Even where Super covers rent, it’s not enough to eat or stay warm,” said Jenkins.

Two new house locations were funded under a 50% capital injection scheme by the previous government, but this model is not available for other homes in the pipeline.

“The housing minister Chris Bishop has said that community housing is a solution, and we’re hopeful of access to sustainable funding. After the houses are built they fund themselves.”

Longevity should be celebrated, says Carole Gordon, a researcher in social and political gerontology (ageing), but a certificate from the King doesn’t cut it when you can’t afford to eat.

“My greatest concern is that the additional rising costs of living longer are not being accounted for.”

She believes Super should increase at 80.

“It’s hard for many New Zealanders to imagine what it is like on Super alone. Unable to eat well, being cold as power is too expensive is reductive on health.”

“When Super was created for people to survive after they stopped work, it was for a relatively short time, until their 70s. It hasn’t adjusted for the fact that people live until 100,” says Gordon.

The current government leaves care for the elderly for “private business” such as retirement homes, but “can’t afford to ignore” the escalating crisis, she says.

“Public aged care is criminally inadequate. Those who have never owned a home and been lower income workers do not have equity or savings.”

Woman in particular are at peril, she says.

“The law needs to look at a living division of assets. What I see happening more is all the couple’s money is spent on care of a male partner, who statistically needs it first. When he dies, women are left penniless and, what we are now seeing more, homeless.”

Not being able to live in dignity in retirement is a human rights issue says Prudence Walker, who holds the Human Rights Commission portfolio for older people.

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and wellbeing under Te Tiriti o Waitangi and human rights, but it is clear that older people in New Zealand are often struggling to meet their basic needs.”

The Super is inadequate in the face of rising costs, she says, particularly so for women, disabled people, and Māori.

“While New Zealand superannuation helps provide a level of social security it may not be enough for people to cope with rising interest rates, rentals, and other costs of living.”

While many supplement Super through continuing to work, their ability to maintain an adequate standard of living is limited by health, demands of their jobs, and rising unemployment, she says.

Dr Kay Saville-Smith, director of Centre for Research, Evaluation and Social Assessment (CRESA) has spent decades researching housing and ageing populations.

She says the current crisis that many seniors are experiencing is just the “turbulence”, and “we haven’t had the worst of it”, but we are heading for the “eye of the storm”.

“Things are going to get a lot worse. It’s a major, major problem. Hardship for the elderly is going to increase, and in numbers. There’s a big swell of people behind the baby boomers who could be in trouble in retirement. You can’t call it a tsunami, because all the signs have been there.”

There are no easy solutions, she says, and she doesn’t believe it’s solved by raising Super at a certain age or income-testing it.

“Financial pressures are certainly taking a toll, with elderly paying mortgages and rents facing a superannuation shortfall.

But the root of this is in housing. Super was designed at a time when people entered retirement owning a home with equity, and mortgage free. As the door has closed dreams of home ownership for many, by 2040, about half of Kiwis will not own their own home when they reach 65.”

At the same time, more and more older New Zealanders find themselves squeezed out into an unforgiving private rental market, she says.

“There has been closing of eyes, and we’ve lost balance in the housing system and it’s not going to be easy to fix.

“It’s a fiscal problem, and it’s going to hit the public purse one way or another – capital gains tax might be inevitable.”

While policymakers have to tackle this looming storm, the elderly need solutions now.

Tauranga woman Memphis Robson-Frentz is converting her own home to rent 13 rooms to the elderly, renaming it Aroha House. Having previously turned her backpackers into emergency housing during the pandemic, she became aware of more elderly becoming homeless.

“More seniors are unable to afford rent on their own. Benefits will shared living costs, a cleaner and support people like caregivers who can visit.”

One of her first tenants is 76-year-old Leslie Hamon from Rotorua, who couldn’t find a rental and didn’t want to give up, “her best friend”, the family dog of 23 years, who’s now become the house mascot.

“I’ve had to show the men the difference between a dish cloth and a tea towel,” laughs Hamon.

“It’s not lonely, living together. We’re not rich, but we are warm, have enough to eat, have a laugh. Share our problems and help each other. Isn’t that how it should be?”