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Older people

by Peggy Koopman-Boyden

Older New Zealanders report the highest level of happiness with their lives of all age groups. They may earn less money than others, but find their satisfaction in family, friends and the time to pursue their interests. Older people in the 21st century have lived longer on average than people at any time in New Zealand’s history.

Demographics of older people

Older people are defined as those 65 years of age and over. Turning 65 can be a milestone – it used to be the official age of retirement, and is currently the age at which people are eligible for national superannuation. Because the group of older people spans about 35 years, people within it vary widely in terms of age, employment, health and life history. Sometimes people between 65 and 80 are referred to as ‘young-old’ and those above as ‘old-old’. In 2013, 75% of older people were between 65 and 79. Overall the 65-plus generation have widely differing life experiences and beliefs.

Living history books

Older people in the early 21st century have lived through some key events in New Zealand’s history – the 1930s depression, the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake, the Second World War and the 2010–11 Canterbury earthquakes. They have experienced technological firsts that younger people take for granted, like passenger travel on aeroplanes (to the other side of the world) and antibiotics.

Many older people see their 60s and 70s as a time to enjoy life without the worries of work or family. Those who can afford it go on holidays around the world, or tour Australia or New Zealand in a campervan. They may begin new hobbies such as genealogy, and undertake voluntary work. They also spend time with their family and in community and political affairs – some local and national politicians are 65 or over. Many remain in paid work. Life can slow down when people reach their 80s, though some remain active into their 90s.

A happy bunch

A 2007 survey found that older people in New Zealand were generally happy and content and had a high level of wellbeing. They had the highest 'level of satisfaction with life' of all the age-groups.

Ageing population

In the early 21st century New Zealand’s population aged rapidly. This is one of the most significant demographic changes in New Zealand history. In December 2015 there were an estimated 674,200 people aged 65 and over. 15% of New Zealanders were aged over 65. By 2038, it is estimated that there will be almost 1.3 million people aged 65 and over – approximately one in four people. By the late 2020s there will be more people 65 and over than children aged 14 and under.

An ageing population has many social implications. There may be fewer people of working age paying income tax, and more older people needing government-funded superannuation and using public health services than in the past. There will be more economic and political pressure to increase the age of superannuation entitlement. However, it is also likely that older people will work and pay income tax for longer than they did in the past. It is also possible that the age of eligibility for national superannuation (state pension) will eventually be extended to 67 years, which would encourage some to stay in paid work for longer.


There are fewer men than women among older New Zealanders – the 2013 census showed that 46% were men and 54% women. This is because women live longer than men by an average of four years. As men and women age, this difference becomes more pronounced. In 2013, 36% of people aged 85 and over were men and 64% were women.


In the 2013 census most older people (88%) identified themselves as European. This is projected to fall to 77% by 2038.

Few Māori are over 65 years – 32,200 in 2013. Although Māori were 15% of the total population, only 6% of all people 65 and over were Māori. Only 5% of that Māori population were 65 and over. The Māori population is increasing rapidly and by 2038 there will be around 130,000 older Māori – 10% of the older population, and 12% of the Māori population. As with non-Māori, there are more women than men over 65.

In 2013, 5% of the New Zealand population 65 and over were Asian (which is projected to increase to 13% by 2038) and 2% were Pacific Islanders (4% by 2038).

Life circumstances


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.



Family relationships are very important for older people. Those with happy relationships have the highest level of wellbeing. For many older people, their spouses or partner are the most important person in their life – as a result, widowhood can be a difficult experience of older age.

Children are also important and adult children can be a source of friendship, support and care. Like parents, siblings can provide life-long relationships. Grandchildren or mokopuna are often described as a ‘gift’. In some cultures grandparents pass on traditions, rituals and languages to their grandchildren. Many older people research and publish their family history, often to pass it on to younger generations.

Many grandparents value spending time with their grandchildren without the worry of constantly caring for them, though some of them may become the main caregivers for their grandchildren. This may occur at the same time as older people are caring for their elderly parents.

Some older people like to gift money and valuables to family members and others close to them. This may take the form of bequests on their death, or the transfer money or assets to the next generation before they die.


Friendships are also very important to older people, who like to spend time sharing their life experiences with others. Deaths of friends are sad events. As older people age it becomes more difficult to meet and make new friends. Isolation and loneliness are problems for many who live alone or where transport is not easily accessible. It is also a problem for older migrants who have few family members in New Zealand, or those not very familiar with the English language or the local culture.

Informal social groups and special events help older people maintain contact with others and ease loneliness. Examples include kaumātua and kuia social events for older Māori, school reunions, the Red Hat Society for older women and annual cultural festivals such as Matariki, Diwali and Chinese New Year. It is not unusual for those over 65 to find another partner (perhaps on the internet), or for weddings to occur between rest home residents.

Many not-for-profit organisations, such as Age Concern, provide facilities for older people to meet and socialise with each other. Most New Zealand communities have social groups for older people – Returned and Services' Association, community houses, on the marae, workingmen's clubs, Rural Women New Zealand, and religious organisations. Such groups are increasingly aware that social connectedness among older people is important to avoid loneliness, and for their continued wellbeing.

Acknowledging older people

Encouraging and maintaining the involvement of older people in the community is the aim of the New Zealand Positive Ageing Strategy administered by the Ministry of Social Development. One of its goals is to encourage positive attitudes towards older people. In the 21st century many younger people and children attend Anzac Day commemorations, acknowledging the contributions older people made in their overseas war service.

Voluntary work and unpaid caring

Older people spend a lot of time volunteering. A survey published in 2009 found that over one-third volunteered for a group or organisation over a four-week period. The most popular forms of voluntary work were with community service and sports organisations. Many older people hold leadership positions in the community, particularly in service organisations, religious groups, sports clubs, and women’s and Māori organisations. Older Māori men and women are important leaders and mentors within iwi and hapū.

Many older people care for their spouse/partner or other family member at home, which often limits their own interests and activities (and income) outside the house. Caregiving among older people is an unpaid and often under-acknowledged activity – around 20% provide some form of care, mostly to a spouse/partner, or parent, friend or child. The most common forms of support older people give in a caregiving role is shopping for groceries, preparing meals, transportation, laundry and managing money.

Leisure and recreation

Participation in leisure and recreation activities creates a high level of wellbeing. A 2013/14 study found that the 10 most popular sport and recreation activities enjoyed by people aged 65-74 were walking, swimming, cycling, fishing, equipment-based exercise, golf, bowls, dance, pilates/yoga and tramping. A similar range of activities was enjoyed by people 75 and over. 76% of 65-74 year olds and 59% of those 75 and over did at least one activity during the week. In the LiLLACS NZ study which interviewed a cohort of New Zealanders living in advanced age, almost all Māori had been to a marae in the last twelve months (82%).

Time use

A time-use survey in 2009-10 found that older people spent as much time on mass media activities as other age groups – 5 hours a day. They spent the most time doing housework, personal care and buying goods and services.

Older people also spend time eating out, going to arts or sports events or taking educational classes. Rest homes and retirement villages usually have a bus which takes the residents for day outings to special events or to an interesting location. Some rest homes have activity days which non-residents can attend. This helps the residents to keep in contact with people and activities in the local community.


Some older people have the time and money to visit family overseas. Many have overseas connections – in 2013, a quarter of those over 65 were born overseas, around half in the United Kingdom or Ireland.

Older people also communicate by telephone and various forms of social media. Many learned computer skills at work, while others have attended classes for older people or learned skills from their children or grandchildren.

Recent research has found that half of Māori in advanced age are comfortable communicating in Māori, and have a complete understanding of their tikanga – correct procedure or protocol within a Māori cultural context. There was no significant difference between Māori men and women in understanding tikanga.


Most older people hold a driver's licence and continue to drive during their older years. Drivers' licences must be renewed (accompanied by a special medical certificate) at ages 75 and 80, and every two years after that. Increasing numbers of those living in urban areas drive a mobility scooter. Access to free bus services using their SuperGold card, means that older people often use public transport during the day.

Special events

International Older Persons’ Day is celebrated on 1 October every year, often as a community event providing information for (and about) older people, or as a social event with dancing, story-telling and music. Every two years the New Zealand Masters’ Games are held, which attract many athletes over 65, including former Olympians. The event is New Zealand's largest and longest running multi-sport event, celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019. In 2017 Auckland hosted the World Masters’ Games. There were 25,000 participants who competed in over 28 sports, with organisers labelling it the most successful games in its 32 year history.

Wedding anniversaries are important events and a cause for celebration with family and friends. Older people are honoured at their 100th birthday with a congratulatory letter from Queen Elizabeth II (New Zealand’s formal head of state). In 2013 there were 558 people in New Zealand aged 100 and older. Twice a year, New Zealanders are recognised with royal honours for their contribution to the nation or their local community. A large number are older people.

Politics and advocacy

Politics of old age

Although older people have much the same political concerns as other age groups, some issues affect them specifically. Over the years, older people have traditionally been concerned about pension payments. In the 21st century older people were a prominent voice in a campaign to reform the local government rating system, because on fixed incomes they struggled with regular rates increases. Health services, future care, mobility and housing are also a major political focus for older people.

'Cullen Fund'

The government set up the New Zealand Super Fund in 2001. It was the initiative of the then Minister of Finance Michael Cullen, who wanted to ensure there was enough money to help cover the future cost of state-funded superannuation. Assets were assigned to a global investment fund administered by an independent Crown entity, the Guardians of New Zealand Superannuation. Withdrawals from the fund are not planned until 2029/30.

Unlike other countries, there have been no political parties specifically founded to address the issues of older people in New Zealand, but some parties have courted the ‘grey vote’. During the 1975 general election campaign one of the National Party’s policies was to offer universal superannuation (not means or income tested) which it implemented after becoming government.

New Zealand First has been the party most associated with older voters. It gained a large proportion of older people’s votes during the late 20th and early 21st century through policies such as the removal of 25 cents in the dollar surcharge on taxable income other than national superannuation, opposing means and asset testing for long-term geriatric hospital stays, and introducing the SuperGold card.

As New Zealand’s population ages, it is likely that older voters will become more powerful simply because there will be more of them. Though people 65 and over have a diversity of beliefs and allegiances, they form a highly visible political bloc which will become increasingly attractive to politicians in the future.

At the level of government, there are a number of entities which focus on older people, including the Office for Seniors (in the Ministry of Social Development), Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand (part of the New Zealand Defence Force) and the Commission for Financial Capability (previously known as the Retirement Commission). Work and Income New Zealand manages state-funded national superannuation payments.

Advocacy actions and groups

Grey Power is one of the most prominent and longest-standing older people’s advocacy groups. It was established in Auckland in 1985 after the government placed a tax surcharge on any income retired people had in addition to superannuation. Grey Power has a specific focus on superannuation and health issues, while lobbying on any topical matter affecting older people. Age Concern (which developed out of local old people's welfare councils established from 1948) also advocates for older people, as well as providing valuable support to older people through its accredited visiting service, health promotion, shopping service and support in cases of elder abuse. The New Zealand Association of Gerontology (1982) has been the general professional group concerned with research, policy and advocacy for older people.

With the population ageing, many other advocacy groups have been established in the early 21st century. The Carers Alliance (2004) is a consortium of more than forty national not-for-profit organisations (including Alzheimers New Zealand, Cancer Society New Zealand, CCS Disability Action, Diabetes New Zealand, Stroke Foundation New Zealand, Continence New Zealand, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren) which works closely with government agencies to ensure that family carers are included in public policy, and that the New Zealand Carers' Strategy (2014) is implemented. For older people, these agencies are specifically concerned with elder neglect and abuse, age discrimination, access to services, isolation problems, transport availability, and research on ageing and its implications.

Age-Friendly Cities Project

Currently, much community, local and national interest in New Zealand is around developing plans for age-friendly communities. This is part of an international initiative, the Age-Friendly Cities Project, developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the early 21st century. It focuses on raising awareness of the implications of an ageing society and encouraging the establishment and expansion of services, facilities and policies for older people. Hamilton became New Zealand's first age-friendly city in 2018.

Other cities and towns in New Zealand are working towards an age-friendly status, where older people can contribute more, and have better access to facilities and services. The Office for Seniors provides information and advice about the process, including a list of recommended age-friendly project areas:

  • outdoor spaces and buildings
  • transport/mobility
  • housing
  • social participation
  • respect and social inclusion
  • civic participation and information
  • community support
  • health services.

Silver economy

New Zealanders are living longer, healthier and more active lives. This increased longevity has led to a greater economic contribution by older people, known internationally as the 'silver economy'. It recognises that 'older people work, volunteer, provide care and participate widely in community life. Many families, communities and organisations depend on older people for their skills, knowledge and experience...Older people form an important, growing market for the providers of goods and services.'1

Such changes are likely to have a significant impact on New Zealand society. Businesses will be encouraged to take advantage of the availability of older workers to avoid skill shortages. New modes of age-friendly planning in transport, housing and urban development will become necessary.

The changes brought about by the silver economy require a re-evaluation of older people, to see them as consumers, workers, investors and entrepreneurs. At the same time, it will be important to maintain the more traditional roles of older people in caring for the family and the environment, and in passing on the traditions and heritage of New Zealand's many cultures.


Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Peggy Koopman-Boyden, 'Older people', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peggy Koopman-Boyden, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 22 o Ākuhata 2018