Talking to – not at – older Kiwis

Opinion: Rendering people over 70 as either passive or wilfully irresponsible is unhelpful and ill-considered. The Te Arai Research Group discusses a better approach.

An elderly man surfs at Henderson Bay on the Aupouri Peninsula, clearly undeserving of the stigma imposed on the over-70s in public health messaging about Covid-19. Photo: iStock

When the New Zealand Government began to take steps to reduce the impact of Covid-19, people aged 70 and over were singled out as the group most vulnerable. From March 21, all people in this age group were required to remain at home except for brief social distanced exercise breaks.

This policy affected more than half a million New Zealanders – that’s a large chunk of people along with their families, whānau and friends.

Our concern was that, in an attempt to protect people over 70 from the immediate impacts of Covid-19, public health messaging and mainstream media coverage stigmatised all those 70 and over. Overnight – if you believe much of the mainstream coverage – they lost their ability to make decisions about their own health and safety.

For example, headlines such as “Coronavirus: How do we keep older Kiwis safe during Covid-19 pandemic?” exclude older people from the ‘solution’. Other headlines like, “How to persuade elderly parents and grandparents to stay home and out of infectious harm’s way” frame older people as a liability not only to their health but to everyone else’s too.

Rendering people over 70 as either passive or wilfully irresponsible is unhelpful and ill-considered. Such an approach overlooks not only the vast diversity among older New Zealanders but ignores the vital contributions they make to their communities. This was quite rightly acknowledged in a Radio New Zealand article published in March that said “community organisations were ‘crying out’ for volunteers” because many of their volunteers were older people now unavailable due to lockdown.

Māori recognised that due to inequitable health outcomes, kaumātua might be at risk from Covid-19 at younger ages than Pākehā. Indeed, based on modelling by Te Pūnaha Matatini, Dr Andrew Sporle said that “If this epidemic ran its full course, about 30 percent of the deaths for Māori would be in that age group, between 60-70”. Pacific people were similarly identified to be at risk at a much earlier age, leading to calls to tailor messaging and support to those aged late 50s upwards in these communities. However, we do not know if and how such messaging was received by Māori and Pacific people in this age group.

A new grant funded by the Auckland Medical Research Foundation is enabling us to explore the Covid-19 experiences of those 70 and over (and 60 and over for Māori and Pacific people). We’re asking older New Zealanders to help counter the mainstream media’s simplistic analysis of the issues by sending us letters about what it was like for them during lockdown. By talking directly with this age group (rather than at them) we intend to gather data useful for informing future messaging by the media as well as the Government’s public health directives.

We are eager to hear from a diverse range of people to reflect New Zealand’s diverse population. Therefore, it’s not a requirement to write to us in English. We are urging people to communicate in the language they feel most comfortable in. And, if people would prefer to send us an audio file or a video, we’re happy with that too.

Those who wish to participate can find more information on our Have Our Say website or email us. While we are eager for people to write about anything they wish related to Covid-19, we do have a few prompts that might be useful:

  • How have you found the experience of lockdown? Was it different for you at the different alert levels? Did the lockdown remind you of any other significant events in your life?
  • How did you stay socially connected with family/whānau/friends who were not in your bubble?
  • Did the lockdown impact any of your cultural or social practices? If so, how?
  • If you could not attend a tangihanga did you and your whānau connect and farewell the person in another way? Were you still able to say goodbye properly and grieve as a whānau? How did the experience make you feel?
  • If you and your family had to miss a funeral, were you able to meet and grieve with your family in another way? How did the experience make you feel?
  • What helped you the most get through the lockdown period, especially at Level 4?
  • How did you help others during the lockdown?
  • Do you have any thoughts or comments about the ways that various media talked about people of your age in relationship to the pandemic?
  • Is there anything you would like to tell the Prime Minister about what people in your age group needed and/or contributed during the lockdown?

All letters will be archived (with the letter-writer’s permission) at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Therefore, not only will those 70 and over be making a difference today, they’ll be writing the history books of tomorrow.

If you’re 70+ (or Maori and Pacific 60 +) and would like to write a letter online now, you can do that here.

Ready for a birds-eye view on older New Zealander's attitudes to social connection? Watch our short animation, Elder Birdsong featuring Rima Te Wiata.

Elder Birdsong is one of fifteen films shortlisted by the World Health Organisation for their inaugural Health for All Film Festival. This animated short musical features 3 elderly birds: an ailing Owl, a physically challenged Tui, and a couple of isolated Korean Godwits who sing about challenges of mobility, loneliness, and self-reliance. The film has been a collaboration between Professor Merryn Gott and Dr Lisa Williams from the University of Auckland’s School of Nursing and Associate Professors Sarina Pearson and Shuchi Kothari from Media and Communication.

More information about the film is available on the University of Auckland YouTube page Elder Birdsong.

Tessa Morgan, Professor Merryn Gott, Dr Lisa Williams, Associate Professor Janine Wiles, Dr Tess Moeke-Maxwell, Hetty Goodwin are from the Te Arai Research Group, School of Nursing.

This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Talking to - not at - older Kiwis 3 July 2020.

Media queries

Alison Sims | Research Communications Editor
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