Ageist rhetoric ‘pervasive’

November 1, 2020

An independent human rights expert visited New Zealand in March this year. Her recently released report contains recommendations to ensure older people’s human rights are met.

Ageist rhetoric, portraying older people as a burden, is pervasive in New Zealand and contributes to negative attitudes toward ageing and older people, according to an independent human rights expert.


Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, visited in March this year to identify best practice and gaps in implementing existing laws and policies promoting and protecting older people’s human rights. She recently presented her report to the council.


New Zealand was undergoing significant age-structural changes, with the over-65 population projected to reach one million by 2027. The numbers aged 85 and over doubled between 1996 and 2019 to more than 88,000. These major changes necessitated a “major shift in mindset” to ensure older people’s human rights were protected and their concern prioritised, the report said. “Older persons are potentially at risk from ageist attitudes, employment discrimination, lower income, material hardship, poor health, abuse and neglect, isolation and loneliness.”

New Zealand has no dedicated law protecting older people, according to the report. Kornfeld-Matte recommended the establishment of an independent commissioner for older persons within the Human Rights Commission.

Age discrimination is prohibited by law but was common in the workplace. Legislation was not sufficient to change employers’ behaviour and “may lead to more subtle and covert ways of discriminating”, the report said. But because age discrimination was outlawed, 24 per cent of those aged over 65 – or six per cent of the total workforce – were in paid work.


Chair of NZNO’s college of gerontology nursing Natalie Seymour said ageism appeared to be more prevalent in larger cities than in rural New Zealand. “This could be attributed to a lower work pool in smaller, rural communities,” she said. The older populations were also not ones to “complain or make a fuss”. This meant what was known about age discrimination was underreported, not reflecting the true extent of the problem.

Kornfeld-Matte had also received reports of age discrimination when seeking mortgages or insurance. “Moreover certain communities …such as Māori and Pasifika peoples and refugees and migrants continue to face structural inequalities and discrimination, which are exacerbated in old age.”

… Māori and Pasifika peoples and refugees and migrants continue to face structural inequalities and discrimination, which are exacerbated in old age.

Reports of abuse and neglect of older people were increasing, with older Māori experiencing greater levels of abuse than older non-Māori. The continued prevalence of abuse required further “measures and mechanism” to detect, report and prevent all forms of abuse in all care settings, institutional and domestic.

Commenting on these findings, Seymour said that despite the Family Violence Act coming into full effect last year, “there are concerns at the very low levels of reporting and the high rate of recidivism, particularly among Māori communities”. There was also a correlation between elder abuse and a dementia diagnosis, she said.

While praising New Zealand’s “unqualified universal superannuation”, Kornfeld-Matte noted that the basic pension remained very close to the poverty threshold. Around 60 per cent of singles and 40 per cent of couples had little or no additional income apart from superannuation “which makes them very vulnerable to any changes in policy or economic circumstances”, the report said.

The provision of affordable and habitable homes remained a challenge and Māori and Pasifika were overrepresented in rental and crowded housing. “With the ongoing changes of tenure patterns, the number of older people facing material and economic hardship and poverty will increase and many of them will live in rented housing,” the report stated. About five per cent of the older population lived in retirement villages and about one third of them were run by five big operators. Kornfel-Matte said legislation regulating these villages needed to ensure they adopted an “age-sensitive approach, enabling older persons to make informed decisions as to whether or not to enter into contractual agreements”.

Old-age care services, whether home based or in rest homes and hospitals, as well as social, disability and mental services and respite care, were “insufficient and underfunded”. Carers needed to be better paid and the demand for care professionals was expected to increase by at least 50 per cent by 2026. Between 12,000 and 20,000 more people would need aged residential care by 2026, the report predicted.


There was no data on the numbers of people with dementia, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to 70,000. She recommended strategic policy on Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive, mental and chronic health conditions.

She would also like to see the Government increase its investment in geriatric medicine and she stressed the need to ensure all patients received quality palliative care.