Silver threads, Verna Schofield

New Zealand’s Ageing Society: The Implications
Peggy G Koopman-Boyden (ed),
Daphne Brasell Associates Press, $34.95


The debate on the role of the State in caring for our ageing population is intensifying. Already in the past year, the Government has completed a major review of superannuation provision and the thrust of health service delivery has turned toward community care. The advent of New Zealand’s s Ageing Society is timely. It places the debate in its historical and present day context while also providing indicators for future planning.

In the growing body of New Zealand literature related to ageing, this book is the first academic text devoted to an in-depth analysis of the effects of changing demographic patterns on our society. Peggy Koopman-Boyden has gathered together ten essays representing a variety of viewpoints. Each writer has produced a well-researched paper highlighting the concerns and trends in his or her particular field of expertise.

The chapters of the book are arranged into three sections which cover background information, policy, and issues related to specific groups of older people. A solid base of demographic data is laid by Brian Heenan. Topics as diverse as theories of ageing, housing initiatives, older women and political influences are explored. The overall result is a rich compilation of source material likely to appeal to a wide range of readers.

Not surprisingly, income support and health issues feature prominently in the discussions throughout the book. People are now living longer. Already a large portion of government expenditure goes toward national superannuation payments. In a very clear exposition of income support alternatives for the future, Susan St John outlines the complexities and pitfalls confronting policy advisors. There appear to be no easy solutions, with savings in one area leading to deficits in another.

The need to target policies carefully is one of several themes recurring in the book. A greater devolution of care of dependent older people from an institutional to a community setting is depicted as the way to reduce escalating disability support costs. However, from past experience, ‘community’ is all too often used as a euphemism for family care. A recent publication, There’s Nobody There, warns of the perils of implementing this policy without due regard to the realities of care-giving and its demands on families. This debate is still in its infancy and is touched on only briefly in the book.

Another pervasive theme is the medicalisation of ageing. Several essays in the book reflect this with their emphasis on disability and age-related medical conditions. With ageism prevailing in society, there is a tendency to forget that most older people lead healthy, active lives. What we now need to know is how to better utilise the skills and the energy of this well, elderly population.

In keeping with this thought, Roger Maaka offers a fascinating perspective on Maori ageing. He portrays the tensions and ambivalence for Maori arising from changing social norms and Western influences. Although questioning whether kaumatua leadership is the appropriate model for the years ahead, he states that it must he retained ‘for without kaumatuatanga there can be no Maori culture’.

New Zealand’s Ageing Society is not just for those interested in gerontology or social policy. The messages contained in the book are pertinent to us all. Despite the minor irritations of the lack of indexing and the reliance on 1986 census figures, the book will be an invaluable addition to bookshelves. It challenges our thinking and opens the way for further enquiry.


Verna Schofield is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and of Social Work, Victoria University of Wellington, and is a former senior social worker.





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