Story: Older people

Page 2. Life circumstances

All images & media in this story


The traditional age of retirement from paid work was 65, though compulsory retirement became illegal in February 1999. Many older people still retire around 65 years. Common reasons for retirement are that they have reached the age at which they can access national superannuation (state pension), want to do other things, have family responsibilities, or are in poor health.

Increasing numbers of older people work beyond 65. In 2013, 22% of older New Zealanders were in the paid workforce. This is a significant increase from 11.4% in 2001. A third of those aged 65–74 were employed, but only 8.7% of those 75–84 and 4% of those 85 and over. Men were more likely to be in paid work than women, and managers and professionals were most likely to continue in employment.


Older people have lower incomes than younger age groups because most are not in paid work. In 2013 the median income for people aged 65 and over was $20,900 (the median for all people aged 15 and over was $28,500). The income of older women was lower than older men’s – $19,900 compared to $22,500 in 2013.

Money matters

Older people are increasingly worried about not having enough money to live on, especially as they are living longer. The 2013 census showed that people in the 65–69 age bracket had the highest median income for all older people ($24,600). People over 85 had a higher median income ($20,000) than those aged 75-79 ($19,400) and 80-84 ($19,500). Those in the 75–79 bracket had the third-lowest median income over all age groups, lower than 15–19 and 20-24 year-olds.

In the 21st century most New Zealanders qualified for the old-age pension (national superannuation) from the age of 65. This is funded out of taxation, rather than a social insurance scheme. To qualify people have to be resident in New Zealand at the time of application, have been resident for periods totalling no less than 10 years since the age of 20, and no less than 5 years since the age of 50. It is paid every two weeks, and taxed for those who have other income. The amount paid depends on marital status and living arrangements. The rate is indexed to increases in prices and net wages.

An old-age pension was first introduced in 1898, for those over 60 and below a certain income. Prior to this older people were expected to keep working and save money, while families and charitable organisations supported older people who could not support themselves. However, by the 1890s New Zealand had experienced  a long economic depression and older single workers (mainly men) were more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than younger workers. Predictions were that the proportion of older people in the population would increase. Traditional support mechanisms were not enough.

New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to provide a pension for older people. Eligibility criteria and amounts have changed many times. Significant milestones included the introduction of universal superannuation in 1938, and a national superannuation scheme in 1977.

Other income sources for older people are dividends from investments, savings interest, rent, private superannuation or continuing employment. Most older people’s only major asset is their house – over 70% were home owners in 2013 (compared to just under 50% of those aged 15–65). Few older people own any other substantial assets.

People turning 65 automatically qualify for the SuperGold card, introduced in 2007. Cardholders are eligible for subsidised or free public transport, discounts at some businesses, and concessions on local and central government services.


The majority of older people live independently and in urban areas. In 2013, 94% lived in private homes. The rest lived in non-private dwellings including rest homes, boarding houses and motels. The government’s ‘ageing in place’ policy encourages older people to live in their own homes for as long as they can, by providing community support. This includes Meals on Wheels, household help and small mobility aids. Family members usually help if they live close by. Government support for older people living in their own homes and receiving national superannuation has also extended to a winter energy payment (introduced in 2018) to ease heating costs during winter months.

Some older people move from their own homes into low-maintenance retirement villages where they can remain independent and can access special services. Others move into ‘granny flats’ on relatives’ property. Many marae have self-contained ‘kaumātua flats’. In the early 21st century moving into a retirement village became popular among older people looking for security, companionship and peace of mind. Almost 13% of New Zealanders aged 75 and over lived in retirement villages in 2017, with the highest number in Bay of Plenty.

Older people assessed as unable to look after themselves live in rest homes. This is funded by the government if the older person cannot pay (there is a financial means test). Before entering state subsidised rest home care, older people must be assessed by their local district health board as having high or very high needs.

Elder abuse

Elder abuse is the physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse or neglect of older people by spouses, partners, family members, institutional caregivers, as well as strangers. Most cases which are referred to a support organisation such as Age Concern, are for emotional, financial and physical abuse. Sons and daughters are the largest category of abusers. World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is an annual event designed to highlight the problem and show that it is socially unacceptable.


Older people living in the 21st century are unique in that, as a group, they have lived the longest in New Zealand’s history. In 2012–14 a 65-year-old man could expect to live another 19 years, and a woman 21 years. Uncertainty about how long they will live is an ongoing concern for older people.

With increasing age the prevalence of disability becomes higher. In 2013, 59% of those aged 65 and over identified as disabled. People with disability are also living longer so there will be an increasing number of people with age-related impairments. Disabilities include mobility, agility, vision, hearing, memory, dementia and psychiatric problems. Ageing also brings the possibility of several chronic conditions occurring at the same time, such as a stroke, diabetes, arthritis, spinal disorders, osteoporosis or cancer.

Older people have access to relatively low cost medical care and receive free hospital care for life threatening conditions such as strokes, heart attacks and cancer. Older people also receive free flu immunisation during winter, and free shingles immunisation (from 2018). However, they are more susceptible than younger people to some diseases for which immunisation is not available. Access to free surgery and hospital care for elective surgery such as a hip replacement involves specialist assessment and spending time on a waiting list that gives priority to patients with the most serious conditions. There is a large network of community-based support services which assist older people physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Carers NZ (established in the 1990s) is a national not-for-profit organisation providing individual family carers of older people (and others) with information, advice and networking support, including among whānau carers, Pasifika carers and new immigrants.

Well and happy

A study published in 2009 found that despite their risk of poorer health, the majority of older people were happy with their health status and with their life overall. Health is probably the single most important factor which influences the quality of life of older people.

With the increasing numbers of older people, the cost of providing such assistance is expected to rise significantly. The dependency ratio, which compares the number of people in the dependent age groups (those under 15, and those over 65) to the working-age population, is increasing, but it may be offset by the better health of older people and the likelihood of them working into their 70s.


Older people have more time to study and often enrol as students in community or tertiary courses. Some graduate alongside their children or grandchildren. Free international online courses are also popular options. The University of the Third Age, an international organisation, provides learning opportunities for older people through lectures, study groups and online courses. In 2018 there were over 80 branches in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Peggy Koopman-Boyden, 'Older people - Life circumstances', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 July 2024)

Story by Peggy Koopman-Boyden, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 Aug 2018