Professor Christine Stephens and Professor Fiona Alpass of Massey’s School of Psychology co-lead the Health and Ageing Research Team (HART), a cross-disciplinary group that studies the health and wellbeing of older people.
For over ten years, the group has been running a longitudinal study of ageing. Beginning in 2006, the Health, Work and Retirement Study involves 4000 older New Zealanders, who were aged between 55 and 70 when the study began.
Participants are surveyed every two years by postal questionnaire, and each survey has a different focus. In 2016, the survey looked at housing and its effect on wellbeing. Housing ownership rates in New Zealand are declining, and older people are increasingly renting as they move into retirement. ‘In our sample, housing ownership is quite high, about 85 per cent, but it’s already declining,’ says Professor Stephens. ‘We are looking at a future where fewer and fewer people will own their own homes as they go into retirement, and that puts them at risk of poverty because superannuation is really designed for a country where older people own their own homes.’
The study showed that even when other factors like income and socio-economic status are taken into account, the health and wellbeing of people who rent declines over time at a greater rate than home owners. ‘We have a strong feeling that a lot of it is to do with security,’ says Professor Stephens. ‘I think social status comes into it, too, with the sort of housing you end up in if you are renting. People just don’t feel as comfortable and content, or so happy with their neighbourhood, and they are not satisfied with the quality of their housing.’
The group has also conducted other analyses that show that people in poor-quality housing have poorer health over time. ‘We wanted to take a very broad view of health, so we looked at physical health, mental health and social health (which we mostly measured as access to social support). We found that the people with the best health were those who were the most satisfied with their housing and their neighbourhood, got on the best with their neighbours and generally felt that their living situation was better. Conversely, the group with the poorest social, physical and mental health have the poorest housing, and are least satisfied with their neighbourhood and with their neighbours.’
We are looking at a future where fewer and fewer people will own their own homes as they go into retirement, and that puts them at risk of poverty.
PROFESSOR CHRISTINE STEPHENS
The 2018 survey focuses on work and older people. ‘There is a lot of interest in older people who are made redundant or lose their jobs, who still want to work, but can’t get a job,’ says Professor Stephens. ‘One of the responses has been for older people to start their own businesses and become entrepreneurial, and we are interested in that aspect. We will also study how employers manage older people, and how prepared they are to support them. Employers are now starting to recognise that there is value in retaining workers who have a lot of skills and experience. There is data saying that if you stay in work you are more vibrant and healthy and live longer. But it’s no good telling people that they should stay in work if we don’t provide the environment that will support them.’
The 2018 study also looks at work and caregiving, as a large segment of the older population looks after their elderlys parents, their spouse, or a disabled child. Some people at 55 also still have young children at home. ‘We have flexible workplace laws where employers are now obliged to consider making provision for people who are caregivers, for example, but not everyone knows about them,’ said Professor Stephens. ‘So we are very interested in having a close look at those situations.’
Overall, the aim of HART’s work is to look after older people and make sure they are healthy and well, an area that is of great relevance to government policy decisions because of our ageing population. ‘In thinking about what sort of policy changes we can make, we could start by focusing on housing, which is clearly related to wellbeing,’ says Professor Stephens. ‘We should start thinking about this when people are younger, before they get old and poor. When you do ageing research, there is a tendency for people to start thinking that everyone turns into another kind of human being when they turn 65, and changes can start to be made then. But it’s a life course situation and we have to be thinking ahead, not just thinking what to do now.’