Brutal reality of retirement in the Bay of Plenty

Source: Q and A

Just before the current lockdown, Q+A reporter Whena Owen went to New Zealand’s retirement capital and surrounds, Tauranga, to get a snapshot of life on the pension. Only first names of the people she talked to are used.

Since she put her hip out, Margaret has had to give up seasonal work in the kiwifruit packing shed.

She worked three nights a week, from 5pm to 2.30am, along with her neighbour Elaine. Even though most of the time she was on her feet, Margaret will miss the social connection of it.

Margaret is 83 and needed the money from the packhouse to help pay rent.

She sits in her RSA pensioner flat in Katikati, Bay of Plenty, surrounded by antique curios from the Birkenhead family home she and her late husband had to sell when he fell ill and couldn’t earn.

After his death, Margaret found she could no longer afford to rent in her home suburb.

With no more pack-house work and a couple of hefty rent hikes, she’s had to apply for hardship grants from MSD. It goes against the grain, she confides, to rely on government hand-outs.

New Zealand’s retirement scheme was set up with assumptions that pensioners would own their own houses at 65. But that increasingly isn’t true.  

Down at the Mount, 89 year old Clive has just finished his morning beach walk followed up with an espresso and cooked breakfast with his mates. He didn’t like my choice of words to describe his situation.

“ No,” he says, “I’m not ‘fortunate’, I’ve worked bloody hard to get here.”

The former businessman believes 65 is too young to receive the pension. His mate agrees.

“65 is the new 45,” he proclaims.

Both men would like to see the age of super entitlement moved up every couple of years.

Tucked in behind the sprawling beachfront homes at The Mount is a complex of council pensioner flats. They’ve seen better days. Among the brick units, rotary clotheslines, pots of dead succulents and parked up mobility scooters, a sign on a trellis reads 'Living the Dream’.

Close by, Maureen stands on her steps clutching a hot water bottle. She points up to the multi-million dollar houses nearby.

“Well this is very valuable land,” she says. 

“We all knew this wouldn’t last. I can understand why the council’s selling off the flats. They’ve got debts.”

The council has recently sold off its pensioner accommodation to Kāinga Ora, formerly Housing Corp, but the two villages at The Mount will be sold to developers and the 42 tenants relocated.

Maureen is content with where she’s been put; in a retirement village in the city. Her neighbour, who doesn’t want to be identified, is still waiting to find out where her new home will be. This has been her community for decades.

She says she’s had sleepless nights and bouts of depression. All that, on top of the stress of trying to survive on the pension.

“It’s a struggle,” she says. “You don’t put your heater on. It’s either that or food.”

Driving along some of Tauranga’s main drags, a seemingly endless stretch of lifestyle villages rush by. Some have grand gated entrances. Tauranga has 27 retirement villages in all, but the image of life inside can be deceptive.

The city’s Grey Power president Jennifer Custins explains that many residents in them are finding it tough with the rising cost of living and village fees on top of that.

Out for a walk along a beach boardwalk, 81-year-old Graham agrees. He’s in a Tauranga retirement village but has to budget hard.

“I’ve just had my bill for power, gas and phone. $380, woo!”

“If I had my time again,” he reflects, “I would have saved a lot more in my younger days so I’d be a lot more comfortable now.” 

Further south in Papamoa, some pensioners have found an alternative to pensioner flats and retirement villages. A few streets back from the beach, a former holiday park now has consent to accommodate residents permanently, but only accepts people over 50.

Residents bring their caravans and pay a lease for the land its parked on. A couple in their 70’s, Liz and Rick, proudly show me around their trailer and adjoining yard.

“We sold our home at The Mount and moved to Australia for twenty years. We thought we’d be able to buy back into The Mount but when we returned, the prices were ridiculous. This was our only option but we love it,” says Liz.

The park’s manager reckons if he built 50 of these holiday parks in the region, he would fill them up on the spot with pensioners. That might be an exaggeration, but there’s a lengthy waiting list and he’s fielding calls every day.

Australia is seeing a proliferation of trailer parks for seniors; retirement on wheels. The park manager, and one we spoke to near Bethlehem, predicts it will be a growth area in New Zealand as the over-65 cohort balloons out next decade.

Back among the caravans, brushwood screens and garden ornaments, an elderly woman is sitting in her plastic awning, rugged up listening to the radio. It’s a cold morning and the awning openings are all zipped up.

She says she’s a bit deaf and having an off-colour day so can’t talk to us. But her neighbours are quick to tell me they’re watching out for her.

At least someone is.