Late last year singer, songwriter, poet Leonard Cohen turned 80 and announced he would recommence smoking,
a habit he’d abandoned
in his fifties.
Speculation is he decided to ‘set aside a life lived for the future and, instead, embrace the pleasures of the present’ (New York Times 20 Sept 2014). He himself said: “I’m looking forward to that first smoke. I’ve been thinking about that for 30 years. It’s one of the few consistent strings of thoughts I’ve been able to locate.”
76,000 people in New Zealand are aged over 80; 5,500 of them live in Hawke’s Bay. There are nearly twice as many women in that demographic as men. Only 200 are Māori. Figures are creeping up slowly every year. By 2031, across New Zealand, over-80s will reach 144,000, then 330,000 by 2061. By then we’ll have more ‘seniors’ (those aged over 65) than children.
Visit the Hawke’s Bay DHB website under ‘Services for Older People in Hawke’s Bay’ and you get an idea of what the DHB sees as priority areas: less able to live independently, the need for enduring power of attorney, assessment tools for Alzheimer’s, disability, mental health.
Stats aside, over-80s are almost invisible. Many live in units, villages, entire subdivisions of seniors. Social exchanges happen in clubs and venues specifically for seniors. To the commercial world they are uninteresting, neither voracious consumers nor employees. Aside from ads for sildenafil, most senior-targeted promotion is aimed at those caring for parents and grandparents: ads for funeral homes, retirement villages, insurance.
In shops, on the street, in the post office, most of the general populace are guilty of making mass generalisations about ‘oldies’. It’s a type of xenophobia. Many of us will get to be 80, or at least 65+, but if we’ve still got a way to go, we don’t seem much interested in peeking into the future to find out what life is like there.
But people over 80 aren’t just fodder for statistics and generalisations. Their experiences of the world, their challenges and enthusiasms, their attitudes to their own lives are diverse. They’re opinionated, witty, rebellious and more than any demographic, they ‘embrace the pleasures of the present’.
Four over-80s met BayBuzz reporter Jess Soutar Barron at Heretaunga Seniors in Hastings to discuss life, death, drugs and old folks’ homes.
Pearl, Rex, Grace and Claude all attend the club at various times during the week, for cards, bowls, keep fit sessions, lunches and housie.
Pearl Green turned 80 last August. “It’s bloody wonderful,” she says. “My mum died at 56, my sister at 50. I celebrated my 80th with a yeehaa and a yahoo!”
Grace Scott is 86. Claude Davidson, 96. Rex Simpson lives with wife Pat just up the street. He rode his new mobility scooter
here; he’s 89.
Grace’s husband died 12 years ago. “I’ll never get over it. I still miss him,” she says.
Claude’s wife died eight months ago. Life has changed, but it goes on.
“I was never allowed in the kitchen, I’d never even cracked an egg, but you’ve got to feed yourself. My wife did the cooking for 75 years.” Nowadays Claude cooks every meal. If he doesn’t know how to do something, he looks it up on his iPad. He’s always been an early-adopter of technology. An engineer, he tinkers until he works it out.
“I wake up, check my mail, read the news, play solitaire until I win. If you want a recipe, it’ll give it to you and tell you how to cook it. I have Spotify for music, every artist I’d ever want I’ve got there,” he explains, calling it his hobby.
“I have a hobby. Smoking cigarettes,” says Pearl Green, who has smoked since she was 17. “I gave up for 11 months, then smoked again the day I buried my husband. It’s a terrific hobby. I smoke a pack a day,” she says, and when Claude looks shocked she adds, “That’s not a lot when you’re a smoker. I’m 80, I’m still kicking, I thoroughly enjoy a cigarette.”
Pearl’s husband died ten years ago after 67 years of marriage. “It’s the biggest heartbreak I’ve ever had. I talk to his photograph,” she says.
Claude does the same. “I have to behave, she might be watching me!” he laughs.
Living alone has been a major life change for Pearl, Claude and Grace. Rex still has his wife Pat.
“It gives you a fright when you have a fall,” says Pearl. “I’ve often wondered: living alone, if you fall and go unconscious, who would know?”
When Pearl’s husband died she moved into town.
“That’s really big,” she explains, potentially more so being only partially sighted. “On the farm I had my husband and my daughter to help me. When I shifted to town I had no one.”
Practical things like downsizing furniture and rehoming family possessions are as challenging as emotional and mental changes.
Getting out and about can be hard. Claude still drives. Rex has his mobility scooter, and is an enthusiastic advocate.
“They’re marvellous. You have to remember you’re a pedestrian,” he says.
Because Pearl’s eyesight is poor she uses taxis.
“It’s easier to stay home,” she admits, “but it’s more important to get out of the house.”
Grace walks everywhere and, up until a major fall 12 months ago, was at the gym multiple times a week.
“I miss the gym. I’ve always been fit,” she explains. “It’s very important to get out every day, or the walls can close in.”
Since 80, Claude has had to renew his licence every two years following a medical. “They make it harder each time,” he says. “It’s not your eyes, it’s not your health, it’s your memory.”
“I don’t believe in doctors having that authority,” says Rex. “They don’t dig any deeper. Doctors don’t know how you drive.”
Pearl began losing her sight when she was working on the family asparagus farm. It was planting season and someone was missing every other row. She was angry, then scared when she realised it was her.
“It was very frightening. I cried a lot,” she says. “I always believed God punished the bad ones and I was a really good person.”
Claude lost an eye at 25 when he got a fragment of steel in it. Then a few years later his hearing began to go when he was working in the canning plant at Watties. Eleven years ago he was so sick he was hospitalised.
“They were deciding would I live or would I die,” he explains. “They checked my brain, and told my family, ‘He has the brain of a 40 year old … on marijuana.’ So I was allowed to live.”
Health and wellbeing become more of a focus, either self-driven or under the advice of healthcare professionals, because what would have been a small knock or a soon forgotten fall at 40 can be a real issue at 80. But many over-80s are not as weighed down with pharmaceuticals as we might think.
Grace doesn’t take a lot of medication. Neither does Claude. Rex takes insulin for his diabetes. Pearl’s on 15 + a day.
“I don’t know what all the pills are for,” she admits. “But if I don’t take them, I’ll die.”
Claude shares his medical secret. “When you go to the doctor don’t ask ‘What can I take?’ Ask ‘What can I get rid of?’” he says. “They never take you off anything, so they add more things but don’t get rid of the things you’re already taking.”
Rex has been in hospital a few times. “The hospital doctors scrapped all my pills.They said ‘You don’t need any of those’ and my doctor agreed. So I think ‘Why did I take them in the first place?’”
“I’m against pills,” says Claude. “I wouldn’t have any but I have to satisfy my doctor.”
Claude is adamant about one thing, the need to stay in charge of one’s own life.
“You run your life. You don’t want to end up in a home. You can see for yourself, visit, and if 70% of the people there have lost their memory, don’t go.” Claude explains: “I’m not going to family, they’ve got their own lives to live. I won’t be a burden, but I’ll be on my last legs before I go into a home.”
Pearl is opposed to a rest home too, unless it’s absolutely necessary. “I’m too independent.”
Grace has spent some time in a care facility, but now lives in her own home. “The doctor put me in when I was really sick. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this, I can’t stand all this sitting business.’ I was there ten days then I walked out.”
All four agree the government’s focus is keeping seniors in their own homes, and they all see rest homes and retirement villages as money-making ventures.
“If you’ve got a few bob to spare,” advises Claude, “invest in a retirement home.”
“They’re robbing the old people,” says Rex. “They’re not there to look after you.”
“They’re running a business,” agrees Claude.
Speeding over 80
Peter Dobbie was born in 1932 in Hastings. His primary school was what is now the Paper Mulberry cafe on State Highway 2.
“Mothers didn’t work in those days,” says Peter, of his childhood. “And we lived on full cream milk and roasts three times a week.”
Peter has a brother a year older and the two of them would bike over the hills to catch the school bus. It was a daily, and mandatory, slog. Especially when his father “decided to move to the wopwops to milk cows.”
“There was no emphasis on healthy living in those days, it was just life.” Peter explains.
It bred in Peter a lifelong commitment to being strong and healthy, something that has held him in good stead.
At 83 he bikes into town most days, even goes as far as Clive and Napier from his home in Hastings; works out at the gym four times a week; chooses fish oil, flax seed oil, chia seeds, manuka honey over medications. And on rest days cruises around the region on his 600cc motorbike. He recently got a speeding ticket, and says the cop got a shock when he realised his age.
“I like the thrill of it. You either like bikes or you don’t,” he says. “I haven’t grown up yet. I’ve had that many speeding tickets; I’ve even lost my licence.” He also has a Holden ute he uses for longer trips. “I’ve been a Holden man for 40 years, but this is my first V8.”
As a school leaver Peter did his compulsory military service. It was 1950 and New Zealand was still on edge after World War 2.
“They were a bit concerned that Japan would emerge as a fighting nation. But the Americans fixed that by dropping a couple of atomic bombs.”
Through the army Peter did a plumbing apprenticeship and then went where the work was. In 1954 he got his first motorbike – a BSA Bantam – while working in Kawarau on the housing boom there, brought on by the burgeoning pulp and paper industry. The 50s and 60s took him all over New Zealand.
“I’ve got a hell of a good memory,” he says. “I like revisiting the places I’ve been because I like seeing how they’ve changed.”
The high-rise building boom of the 60s saw Peter move to Wellington.
“If I had my life over that’d be my number one pozzie,” he says. “Cities grow on you and I’ve always loved the climate of Wellington.”
Around that same time Peter started playing squash and was a founding member of the Island Bay Squash Club. He also played a lot of badminton, and when jogging was the sport du jour, he took that up too.
“Being active all your life makes you healthier when you’re older,” he says. “As you age you have to adapt, do something gentle, take up yoga. Adjust your thinking to what your body tells you.”
“Feeling good, being well, that’s terribly important to me,” says Peter. “I’m right into what’s healthy.”
Peter’s secret is attitude. “Your head space has got to be right, mix with younger people, keep fit,” he explains. “You’ve got to have a purpose, you’ve got to have something to get you out of bed.”
His one worry is losing his independence, he says.
“I don’t want to end up in a rest home. When I go, I want to go out like a light.”
60 years traveling
When Elberta Van Rangelrooy’s mother was 85 she boarded an airplane for the first time and flew from Holland to New Zealand. She came back three summers in a row. She was 93 when she died in 1995.
Elberta is 81 this month and will celebrate her 60th wedding anniversary with Arie on Boxing Day.
“We came out as an engaged couple,” she explains, and married a month after arriving in New Zealand in 1955. “I followed my love.”
Arie was a painter and paper hanger, and, now retired for over 20 years, the two still travel regularly and extensively, balancing their time between family in Holland and their beautiful vegetable garden in Havelock North.
“I have two countries I can call home,” says Elberta. “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been home to Holland. I would rather have a car that’s 25 years old than miss out on travel.”
In the last year they’ve travelled to Holland, Ireland and Bali where they holidayed with family. But although she still feels mentally able to get on a plane and fly long distance, Elberta admits that changes in big cities mean she’s not as confident as she once was.
“I do perhaps feel less safe travelling now that I’m older,” says Elberta. “Europe has changed.”
Flying itself takes a particular mindset. Elberta explains she walks a lot on the plane, and thinks of it like a “rainy weekend where you have to stay inside and read all day.”
Rather than winging away this year Elberta and Arie’s Dutch family – she still has a brother and a sister living in Oosterbeek near Arnham, as well as a son in The Hague – will come down under for the 60th Anniversary celebrations.
To balance out the jet-setting, Elberta spends most days in the garden. She’s grown vegetables since her children were babies and now grows everything she needs, except potatoes, which take up too much space in the petite plot.
Between raising children and retiring, Elberta worked in retail, having been raised behind the counter of a shoe shop.
“We retired together, Arie and me, then we went to Europe with our backpacks on,” she says.
“We’ve been really lucky. Almost all our family have been here, and that’s good because then they can imagine what our lives are like here.”
Between visits Elberta is a convert to Skype and Facebook, and a keen tablet-user.
“I love it because I can see the family, the extended family, new babies, the children. I leave them little notes on Facebook.”
Travel itself has done a lot to stimulate both Elberta and Arie as they’ve aged. Elberta believes they are far more adaptable because of travel, the need to convert currency and time zones, navigate public transport and new technologies. Their ability with languages also helps keep their brains active and engaged. As well as English and Dutch, Elberta speaks French and German.
When Elberta boarded the ship that took her to a new life in New Zealand 60 years ago, her mother wouldn’t come to say good bye. Then forty years later, at over 80, she came too. Perhaps travel runs in the family, no matter how far apart that family is.
Music through the ages
Willie Wetere has played music all his life. Born in Cambridge in 1934, he moved to Hastings 20 years ago to follow his love, Jackie.
“When I was seven my sister sang and I played the uke,” he says.
His mother played the piano and he moved on to the guitar, playing in the family band from 12 years old.
Then for his 21st birthday his dad bought him a saxophone.
“He gave me the sax and sent me to Auckland, he said ‘You’ll get lucky there, in the big smoke.”
In Auckland the era of the Māori Show Bands was beginning. Dance halls all over the city were full, and they all needed bands.
Willie hooked up with other Māori musicians playing any gig they could find, and ended up playing in most of the bands of the time, as a fill in, a reserve, a floater.
In 1958 Willie made it to the finals of ‘Have a Shot’, the 1950s version of ‘X Factor’. It was held in a packed Auckland Town Hall. In the crowd was legendary music promoter Phil Warren, and after the show he approached Willie with an offer to join one of his bands.
“He ran lots of night spots and he wanted to sign me up. I thought I was too green, I was what’s called a ‘green horn’.” Friends and fellow band members assured Willie he had what it took and Willie joined the Phil Warren coterie.
“I was getting a lot of jobs after that,” Willie explains. “Good paying jobs, in the biggest dance halls in Auckland.”
Then, just as the wave was peaking, he knocked out his front teeth in a Sunday social game of rugby.
“You can’t play a sax with no front teeth,” he says. He found work as a crane driver, and after some time went back to playing music at night. For years he put in long days, and longer nights. He worked til he was 75, but by 60 he’d had two heart attacks and two years ago he had quadruple bypass surgery.
The days of the Māori Show Bands are now part of the rich fabric of New Zealand music history.They included Prince Tui Teka, Dalvanius Prime, the Maori Volcanics, the Howard Morrison Quartet. Willie played with them all.
“There were lots of dance halls and they were all full. I miss a lot of people in the game, all us musos were really close; we were like family,” says Willie. “People danced, they’d go out and enjoy themselves. People liked to socialise, that’s what I liked about them days.”
In the heydays of the live music scene Willie was a versatile and adroit musician who could slot in to any band.
“I played everything. If I couldn’t find a piano I’d jump on a bass and adapt.”
His seven children and countless mokopuna all play music. A group of five of his grandsons recently won Battle of the Bands.
Willie still plays the sax and the clarinet, often accompanied by Jackie, who sings.
“As you get older you lose it, your hearing goes, your fingers begin to hurt,” he explains. But continuing with music also helps Willie stay active.
“All my old muso friends … they still call in,” says Willie.
His sax continues to be a big part of his life; he calls it his ‘machine’.
“That sax has travelled a lot,” he says. “She’s a lovely machine this one, she’s done a lot of work for me.”
The Flip Side
Marilyn Scott is coordinator at Heretaunga Seniors where most of the 106 members are over 80. Although she knows there is a lot of happiness and positivity amongst the 80+ demographic, she warns against glossing over the very real issues older adults live with.
“It’s not all roses,” she says.
Social isolation and a lack of connectivity is a big challenge. Although the very old don’t shy away from new technology, the cost of broadband is out of reach to many, keeping the right to drive through the bi-annual drivers licence medical can be a struggle, having confidence to connect with neighbours and community is difficult, and with family more and more moving away to bigger cities, loneliness and seclusion can increase.
Nutrition is another major issue. Many over 80s have lost a partner and if that partner did the majority of cooking they are having to learn new skills at an older age. Even if they have always cooked, cooking for one can become monotonous and expensive, so they cut corners or slide into a mentality of ‘can’t be bothered’. Also, as the memory goes so too can the ability to cook. Simple things like buying vegetables, then keeping them fresh, when there’s only one person to eat them can mean people skimp on vital vitamin intake.
A lack of advocates for older people has multiple flow-on effects. “If they go to the doctor,” explains Marilyn, “they are a fairly staunch generation this one, so they don’t complain, they’re not assertive, they’re frightened of upsetting the apple cart.” In situations like this, strong connects with family are invaluable, but many now have family overseas or there’s only a tenuous link. Hearing issues can really impact older adults’ quality of life as they can struggle to be heard and understood.
When there’s no family around to help, groups like Heretaunga Seniors, Age Concern or Enliven can help. Issues come when people are not linked in to their wider community.