Forging a community for the ages


    Saturdays  I catch the ferry into work with John, a few mornings a week I catch up for a chat with George, and usually a couple of evenings a week I find myself on the bus alongside my neighbour Jane discussing films, or the horses, or travel.

    Like many on Waiheke, I’m a blow-in. I don’t have any family, just the connections and friends I’ve made over the past 15 or so years. And if those years have taught me one thing, it’s to cherish those friendships.

    I certainly cherish my time with John, George and Jane – they’ve all got decades on me in terms of experience and they’re full of great stories, the occasional snippet of wise advice and a bucket-load of straight-talking.

    Apart from being great company during my daily life around Waiheke, the other thing about John, George and Jane is that they are Waiheke. Our island is disproportionately older than the rest of the country with – according to the 2016 Census – 20.5 percent of our residents aged 65 or older compared to the national figure of 15.3 percent. And that skews the median age on Waiheke to more than 45 years old – that’s in comparison to, for example, 35 years old just over the water in Auckland.

    So, with this prevalence of older Waihekeans it would make sense, surely, for us to be catering for them properly. For us to have their livelihoods at the heart of our community. For us to have the so-called “grey power” issues down in black and white.

    Alas, no.

    This week the Waiheke Local Board presented its feedback to Auckland Council on the supercity’s submission to the government’s Better Later Life Strategy. After 88 glossy, colourful pages outlining how the country intends to look after its ageing population up until 2034, there are three starkly monochrome pages that spell out the reality today on Waiheke. 

    A few paragraphs make for grim reading:

    “There is a concern that Waiheke Island does not have the facilities and comprehensive health services required to meet the needs of an ageing population.”

    “Provision for rest home facilities and after-hours medical services is limited on Waiheke and requires attention.”

    “[There is] increasing isolation … Longer term residents fear that the community supports are breaking down with the changes in the demographic profile.”

    There’s some good work being done at local board level to develop on-island aged care and respite options and provide mobility scooter-friendly footpaths – but these are band aid solutions to what is actually a community-wide challenge.

    The sentence that really cuts to the quick in the board’s feedback is “longer term residents fear that the community supports are breaking down”. It’s an idea that sat uncomfortably after I caught up with Dr Hinemoa Elder this week to congratulate her on being included in Monday’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

    She was typically modest in wanting to share her newly minted Member of the NZ Order of Merit with many of the groups and organisations – including some on the island – she works and plays with. And the idea of community sprung up often in our conversation.

    One of her key loves is her waka ama group and something she said struck home.

    “It’s not just the paddling, it’s the talking. It’s not just the bits of training and learning about technique, it’s also afterwards when we meet to share bits of our lives. That’s what social cohesion is – learning and laughter and sharing nutritious food. These are all things that are very important for wellbeing.”

    And that’s the nub of the issue: the lack of “facilities and comprehensive health services required to meet the needs of an ageing population” can and must be addressed. But the greater good would come from focusing on social cohesion. In Dr Elder’s terms, the paddling is tough but achievable, it’s the sharing of each others’ lives that’s best for all our wellbeing.

    Knowing that as we grow old on Waiheke we can all expect to be able to stay on Waiheke is an important part of cementing the spirit of community in all our residents. Knowing that as we grow old on Waiheke the island will be there to support us is an important part of living with confidence in our neighbours and dispelling the fear of isolation. Knowing that as we grow old on Waiheke those moulding the island’s future are taking us into consideration is an important part of belonging to that future.

    This weekend I will, no doubt, chat once again with John about our shared love of the wretched football team that is Stoke City; I’ll find out how George’s beloved Roosters are performing in the NRL; and I’ll catch up on Jane’s eclectic list of must-watch movies. And I’ll cherish both the time spent with friends and, perhaps more importantly, the chance to nourish those intergenerational bonds that keep our community strong.
    James Belfield

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