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Retirement communities and our changing demography

Over a recent lunch with friends, I found myself explaining the demographic shifts that have changed New Zealand’s retirement landscape. Aotearoa’s hospitality toward newcomers like me has meant that the world is reflected in the streets of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Retirement communities, however, often model a different version of New Zealand. Many Retirement & Lifestyle Villages today tally with census data collected more than 30 years ago. As an observer and participant in the Aged Care sector, I see huge opportunities for villages that better engage with their wider community: opportunities for growth and opportunities to shape the retirement communities we'll be building decades from now.

As recently as 1991, just 8% of New Zealand’s population identified themselves as of neither Māori nor of European descent. Consider that in our last census, conducted in 2018, that number had increased to 25.9%. This is largely the result of high inbound migration from Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East in recent years. Statistics New Zealand projects that these communities, combined with Tangata Whenua, will experience an increase of between 18% to 58% in population growth between now and 2038.

As a new immigrant from the US, I know how important it is to create a sense of belonging through community and social connection. Over my seven years in New Zealand, I’ve had the good fortune to make friends and form professional networks that have fostered this belonging. So what happens to new migrants who arrive in Aotearoa in later life?

Over the course of lunch, my mates and I reflected on our experience as immigrants in New Zealand. We’d each left behind some form of community in which we might have spent our old age had we not migrated here. Coming from the United States where retirement villages are a popular choice among seniors, I was intrigued to hear of my friends’ perspectives. Some at the table came from communities in which ageing at home, among one’s family, was the cultural norm. The prospect of spending their senior years in a Retirement & Lifestyle Villages wouldn’t have even been considered had they not moved to New Zealand where high living standards in aged support mean that retirement comes with many options. Here’s the thing: while recent migrants to New Zealand are increasingly open to retirement villages, many of our retirement villages have yet to engage with the cultural and demographic changes that we’ve experienced over the past 30 years.

I’ve had many conversations with members of our retirement sector about these shifts. I’ve observed broad consensus in the profession: most of the village managers I’ve spoken to have expressed the need for a demographic re-balance within their retirement communities, referring to a mix of age, gender, cultural and religious backgrounds of their residents. I’ve seen that some villages have managed this opportunity well, while others have found the process challenging and have refrained from making changes for fear of disrupting their community’s cultural equilibrium.

One village which has practiced and encouraged cultural inclusion especially well is Ons Dorp Retirement & Lifestyle Village, overseen by the Dutch Village Trust and headed by General Manager Gary Williams. In October 2019, I was invited to attend the grand opening of a new Atrium at the village, attended by the village’s residents and presided over by the Dutch Ambassador to New Zealand. As it happened, the day coincided with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Equal time was allotted to both events and resident participation was high for each.

The two celebrations struck me as an authentic and joyful marker of New Zealand’s cultural identity. As a visitor with a noticeably foreign accent, I was introduced to each celebration and informed of their significance within the village. I learned, shortly afterward, that Ons Dorp has long practiced cultural inclusion as a way of honouring its residents and the broader community in which it is located.

In an ideal world, all villages would practice cultural inclusion with the same ease. The reality is that change – and in particular demographic and cultural change – can be challenging for those for whom consistency, comfort and maintaining the familiar are key priorities. How do we reconcile ‘the familiar’ with a changing demographic landscape, then?

One solution that has worked well is community engagement through in-village activities and events. This could come in the form of a morning tea attended by both existing residents and new retirees living nearby in their own homes. The opportunity to get to know others – people of diverse identities and life experiences – who come together over a shared interest is a powerful way of engaging with and shaping the kinds of change that the retirement sector needs. Consider other examples: beach outings attended by both long-time residents of a village and new Kiwis who are weighing up their retirement options, or a game of bridge in which both cards and cultural knowledge are acquired during the fun. The result is organic change that is informed by the joint decisions of a village’s staff, residents and surrounding community – the latter of which get to experience the best that a village has to offer, before ultimately applying to move in.

There’s nothing novel about village-community interaction as a means of building resident engagement and wellbeing. But its potential in New Zealand, today, is near infinite. Beyond cultivating retirement communities that better reflect who we are, village-community relationships are key to a retirement experience in which we are all validated, valued and contributing members of our society in older age.

If you’re curious about how retirement villages can manage in-village activities and community engagement without breaking the bank or drafting a new strategic plan, get in touch with me at .

Better yet, if you’ll be at the Retirement Village Association Conference between 24 – 26 May in Auckland, stop by Skillet and we can chat about building community engagement and inclusion in your village – on your time and your terms.


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