GUEST BLOG: Bronwen Summers – Farming the Elderly for their life savings and government subsidies


It’s good to see the Retirement Commissioner investigating companies running retirement villages. We need a similar investigation into the actual care for those at the end of their life in retirement homes.

All rest homes and aged residential care facilities are certified and audited to ensure they: provide safe, appropriate care for their resident.  Sounds good and just as it should be but I do wonder how many of these places are randomly inspected. 

In the last few years I have visited friends in rest homes, not just in Otautahi but in other parts of the country as well.  What I have seen worries me about the quality of life and care many of my friends and acquaintances receive while the companies which run the facilities make extraordinary profits.

A sample of things that have worried me include: a woman asks for a drink but does not get it because they have decided to limit her liquid intake as “she may wet herself” thereby giving “extra work” to her carers; another woman has to wait 20 minutes before someone is free to take her to the toilet because she had been “toileted at lunchtime”; residents moved from their rooms to the lunch room by 11.30 to stare at the table as lunch is not until 12 noon. 

I entered one facility to see six people sitting around in large wheeled recliner chairs with big pink feeders on.  They and the other 30 plus people having lunch were then wheeled out into a large day room with a large TV screen.  A single carer sits at the front with a laptop and the residents look at a static picture on the screen.  The time is approximately 12.45pm, the next “entertainment” doesn’t start till 1.30pm.

One woman on a walker tries to leave but the woman with the laptop calls out for someone to bring her back which happens.  She might fall, break her hip or do other damage and there is nobody to walk with her.  We take my wheelchaired aunt on a tour around the lovely garden which despite being in the facility for a number of years she has barely seen, she names all the plants.  Clearly it is a very long time since some of the clients have been outside. 

Someone comes in who is taking a vanload of people on an outing.  It is not a matter of staff asking who would like to go.  That has already been decided by the carers.  Only the “easy to manage” ones go.

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I wonder when any of these people last had the paper read to them.  When do staff have time to read a book to a group of them?  Do babies and little ones ever visit? 

A relative who specialises in geriatric nursing care says many of these people would not be in this situation if from day one they had been ‘walked’ a couple of times a day.  Of course there are not enough staff to walk people or enrich their lives in other ways as there ought to be.  

I feel deeply for the predominantly Filipino staff who are poorly paid but are genuinely caring about their charges.  Whilst it gives them jobs I know many of them wonder why we so callously do this to our citizens in their senior years.  How many of the nurses have been trained in the care of geriatrics, indeed how many of the staff are trained nurses.  We know these places are understaffed with cheap labour because of the profits required for investors.  

Why has it got to this, why haven’t we learnt from other countries, why do we as part of the Western World think this is the only way to care for the elderly?  Why have we not learnt from Māori who in the main do not put their kaumatua into these places?

In the non-Western world the old are revered; they are kept within the family circle, not ‘put into’ care.  The glossy ‘advertisers’ that regularly come with my newspaper and the endless adverts for those competing to get new “clients” only tell a small part of the story.  The nice family-friendly bit, fine when you are fully able. 

So what needs to change?  Firstly, we need more in-home care for the elderly to keep them contented and feeling valued in their own homes in their own communities for much longer.  In other words keeping their homes clean, keeping the meals interesting and tasty and help with showering and the mental health care, visitors and outings.   

Secondly, we need smaller places in communities, housing 10-12 people where people in the community can visit, with babies, with children, with animals, to read to them.  

Caring for the young, pre-schoolers or for the elderly should not be done as a money-making exercise.  It should be about making sure these people get the best of whichever end of life they are at.  

Instead of treating our elderly with dignity and respect we seem to have large “farming” operations.  Every dollar these elderly residents spend from their savings or that they receive from government subsidies should go to their care rather than as profits for big companies.


Bronwen Summers is a Mum, grandma, gardener, foreign film goer, reader of good literature and political activist



  1. 100%. Appreciate your noting the good work done by Filipino staff, and in fact by Samoans too, both from cultures who care for their own elderly themselves. Visiting, I have wondered what they think of us not doing so. Elder care, like various forms of children’s pre-school care, is a money-making business being bought into by Asian immigrants but not, as far as I know, by either of these two communities, but by an ethnicity who also run booze barns, convenience stores, petrol stations, convenience stores, and also, I gather, a tyre service which was once as good as it’s television advertisements, and a franchise which produces worse pizzas than Sir Bill English’s.

    Paul Theroux in “Deep South”, travelling in Mississippi and Arkansas, notes these same immigrants having a monopoly on motels, gas stations and convenience stores, having previously recorded them all over East Africa as shopkeepers and traders. The thing here, is that it is possible to generate a good income without being skilled in the way which a carpenter, scientist, plumber, doctor, musician, arborist, mathematician, poet or engineer, is, so that the value and benefits which they add to the community may be limited.

    The quality of elder care in New Zealand obviously varies, but in a country which has abolished its much needed Commissioner for Vulnerable Children, it is perhaps unsurprising that at the other end of the spectrum, the old aged do not go gentle into that good night, but may be heartlessly shepherded like mindless creatures, which is very sad, and an indictment upon us as a decent social community. We’re not. The inbetween years, with the shocking genderID confusion and sexualisation now being forced upon school children, suggest that our values are questionable, and our politicians inadequate.

      • RosieLee. A quick dawn read of today’s Daily Mail, shows the UK wholeheartedly rejecting the WHO’s guidelines for sex “ education” for young kiddies. This is the same WHO whose powers PM Ardern, and I think, the WEF, wanted expanded, and the impact upon our own sovereignty is possibly the least of our concerns here. Would that our politicians weren’t so intellectually and ethically challenged.

        I know there’s stuff going on in elder care which is far from ok, but outsiders are powerless to do anything about it, and could compromise residents by doing so; like the children, they are the least of our brethren, and their elected representatives constantly fail them.

    • I think it is easy to point the finger at the the inadequate care provided at some retirement facilities, but we must also remember that this is business, and the shareholders want profits regardless of how these profits are achieved. It’s all about the dollars.

      My finger points to the families of these elderly who require care, what and where is their responsibility for their parents and grandparents?

      Often their focus is on their expected inheritance, their lifestyles, their “too busy” lives, their holidays abroad etc, etc. Caring for aged parents doesn’t appear to be their their responsibility.

      My husband and I raised our two sons to know that when the time comes, they may need to care for us – so be prepared.

      I am now a widow in my 80’s and living independently, and pretty sure that my final days will be with my whanau.

      So often I have heard of elderly parents saving for their retirement, then funnelling these funds off to their children so that the state will then have to pay for their final care. This seems so wrong, so foolish.

    • immigrants have those ‘monopolies’ because they’re prepared to work long hours for little return

      in the uk when people complained about ‘pakkie shops’ I used to say where do you go when you want a packet of fags at 6 in the morning or 10 at night?

      the issue is the state has abdicated all responsability and private business wants profit and doesn’t care about granny but a new set of guidelines will be drawn up and duly ignored

    • How does NZ treat its most vulnerable citizens?
      The age of individualism and personal responsibility is fair enough, until you get so old that you start losing your marbles, and fall prey to any scam going around.
      The Commissioner for Vulnerable children, that everyone wanted to keep, has been abolished.
      The Commissioner for the Elderly, which Mark Sainsbury championed, has been rolled into the Health and Disability Commission. Yet in the case of mistreatment, which Mark Sainsbury highlighted, the daughter of a mistreated person in care, had already sought help from the agencies, who are supposed to be the watchdogs, including the HDC (, yet nothing came of it.
      It may be wise, to try to never go into state care, no matter what your age, because bad things can happen. The authorities seem to be future-proofing, by sweeping future problems under the carpet.
      The problem with this, is that the problems still occur, and you end up with a lumpy carpet (sarc).

      Could the Govt, which is wanting more social housing, build some small boarding houses dotted around communities where the elderly are, and build them to the latest standards (not like the boarding house in Newtown), even open-source proposed designs for any architects to contribute to.
      Such boarding house designs need not be the cheapest possible, which seems the usual route, but be exemplars of design, that are sustainable warm and dry, fire+flood resistant, close to amenities, with gardens, solar panels, easy access, internet, good security systems etc etc.
      Push-back from the retirement company lobbyists should be ignored, just as the supermarket, forestry, alcohol, firearms, vape shop, third party lender, and banking lobbyists, should be ignored. I never elected any of those lobbyists.

  2. Why is the government handing out money to these rapacious monopolies in the first place?

    At the same time, the government was busy shutting down its own geriatric facilities and mental wards. Instead of allowing profiteering crooks to exploit cheap foreign labour, this money could have kept state hospitals going and employed local people at award rates.

    The only facilities the healthcare companies should be running are luxury homes for the wealthy. Social Security should fund free state care homes in every province, managed by elected hospital boards.

  3. It used to be only 10% of elderly folks would end up in resthomes. They wouldn’t exist if not for the demand by families, need for care and reduced options for single people (fewer boarding houses and the like).

    Another option mentioned was smaller home set up. Have a look at Abbeyfield.

    • The problem with this is that we are not talking about when people go in and they can walk and go out etc. It is when it gets beyond this.

      I have seen the Abbeyfield adverts – interesting there is not a brown face amongst them.

  4. Again the question stands, who would be responsible for ‘elder’ care if we were not to have Old Folks homes, or Retirement Villages with hospital/hospice care attached for those not able to care for themselves?
    In the past it was the woman – human female, that did this work, unpaid. And in many cases still is today the work of women – human female. Nuns used to run some of the ‘poor houses’ or ‘old folks homes’, but they weren’t paid all that well either. Some professions such as sailors had homes for retired men where they got to live their end of life with some dignity and like minded people, or retirement homes for retired service people.

    So where is government regulating the industry? Why over the last 5+ years was nothing done by our social justice warrior government? Will there ever be something done, or are we to believe that those that invest in these businesses would rather not see the red pen of government and government – of all stripes – is too happy to oblige, and how many in government are invested in these businesses?

    Where are the investment into elder housing? Small Apartments in medium sized apartment buildings with a concierge / nurse / nurse aid living in the same building? Oh that in the too hard basket?
    Where is the investment into elder care that is affordable, accessible and above all staffed? I mean try going to your GP and get healthcare atm. Chances are they are booked until the kingdom comes.

    And why don’t we build Apartment buildings that are mixed – small flats for the elders that don’t need space, and the youngsters that don’t want to much space but rather a cheap rent, with larger family friendly apartments thrown in, to create a good mix and maybe even some human interactions, including some shared outdoor place that is not just a concrete pad for rubbish bins and cars.

    Unless and until we think about what ‘elder’ care is and should be, people will sell their house and move to a nice village that has a team of doctors available, has cooked food available, has outings/activities a plenty and above all provides for friendship, kinship, and human interactions.

    Maybe its not the retirement village principle that is wrong, but our insistence that everything must be cheap, individual above all, that what old people have worked for is not theirs but the stuff someone will inherit, and that worst comes to worst – some family member can do the job for free or near free as it was in the times before retirement villages.

    • No I don’t think they are necessarily wrong, but the whole profit motive is. Unless you want to be in some exclusive more expensive place then the State should own and run them. I don’t expect everything to be cheap at all, but the care a lot of the time is substandard and the food is crap.

  5. It is a lot easier to care for your parents if you are unemployed.

    NZ society can’t have it both ways, wanting everyone to work as wages are too low to survive on one income while also complaining that only Pacific Islanders and Asians etc look after parents – I they look a bit closer it might be more related to cultures who have both parents working but have a welfare system that is supposed to help support aka Western, vs those countries that don’t have welfare systems and have people at home to look after parents who are not paying tax.

    NZ in any case should not be allowing it’s pensions and health care to balloon to foreign nationals who come here in their later years while not paying much/no tax, also who have money to come while those in the retirement sector complainabout NZ adult children not doing enough while they pay for the rest homes and free health care of the world’s growing elderly coming to NZ who get it all for free.

  6. Thanks, Bronwen for a good explanation regarding the aged care industry (racket). While I agree that aged care does not match up to its promises if people took more care of their health when younger their options in their later years would be much better. My 84-year mum still lives at home looking after herself & has a large garden that she keeps productive ( my sister, brother & myself live close so are able to help her with heavy jobs, etc), her twin brother still cuts his own firewood, and gardens as well so there is a lot to be said for keeping good health as we age. My dad did not get to enjoy his last years due to illness (he did not look after his health) & while it was sad when he died at least his suffering was over & we live with the promise of the resurrection.

  7. They’re farming young workers at the other end too, many of whom will not live to 65, and, if they do will be working to pay market rent until they drop. Sure sounds like a recipe for something… hmmm…

  8. ” It’s good to see the Retirement Commissioner investigating companies running retirement villages ”

    There are so many areas that have been allowed to function like this in our free market unregulated economy.

    Retirement villages are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

  9. I spent at least a good 10 years providing primary support and care for my mother to try and keep her independent in her own home.
    That period was probably one of the most stressful periods of my life.
    Sure she had carers visit her daily to cook meals and get her ready for bed etc but it was up to me to get her shopping, manage her finances and take her out her to the doctors etc, whilst trying to hold down a full time job and raise my daughters. The real issue though was when she would have a fall or a medical emergency….which was frequent
    She had a St John’s alarm but despite living 1/2 an hour away I would often get there before the Ambos, once they had notified me.
    This was nerve wracking and I was in a constant state of “waiting for the call” which severely effected own my mental health.
    Other times I had to negotiate long periods of reduced hours or work from home conditions with my employer, so I could be there for her after for post op recovery. My own property became neglected and it put strains on my other relationships
    With siblings living overseas, managing mum fell on my shoulders, with very little support other than an hour or two of home care support.
    Eventually the family decided it was best to have her move to a place that could cater for her needs and she moved into a local retirement village, where several of her friends had already shifted too.
    She constantly complains about the food but other than that she is happy and for me there is piece of mind that she won’t be alone lying on the floor in pain when she does fall, as staff are on call for that kind of thing
    The downside for us is the way the contract works. Having a wound dressed by the nurse is extra, day trips are extra, the food is pretty bad unless you eat at their Cafe, which is actually quite good but extra. And we know that once she does move on, it will be months if not years before the investment is repayed, minus their fee and any expenses they identify as necessary. It’s standard practice to completely gut and renovate an apartment and then take the cost out of the sale.
    Transparency on that would that would be nice, but we won’t know that cost until they make payment of what’s left from the sale. So any inheritance is simply perceived as a bonus not a given by my family.
    In a nutshell yes, the retirement sector needs a good shake up to lift its game rather than just profiteering off the misery of old people.
    But the sector is necessary in our modern world, so please don’t cast judgement on an elder’s family for not being there for them. I for one tried my best and it nearly broke me

  10. No one is casting judgement on any individual here. What the judgement is about is the greedy companies and their shareholders. As Bronwen Says in her article the homes should not be soooo big and should be in communities where some people will visit and take an interest. The profits are disgusting. As you have said the food is not great and you pay for every little extra that is a disgrace. I think the government are sorting out the ‘ownership’ side of things and the fact you don’t get capital gains etc. It is the care that I am querying.

  11. We, are a large part of this problem, we do not give this issue the attention it deserves, and yeah, I’ll include myself well n truly as far as this problem is concerned. Hats off to the Filipino/Nepalese/Bhutanese crowd who make up a disproportionate number of carers in this vital occupation.

    Clearly, this is one area of life that is not getting the attention it deserves. Government can and should be pushing this issue centre stage – constantly.

  12. 100% Bronwen but with the understanding that family care is not for everyone so we need to seek a range of ‘inbetween’ solutions including greater help with robotics for in home help along with greater community care and input.

    • And that is exactly why we are where we are.
      My parents and parents in law lived and are living in elder care facilities.
      My parents moved in when my Dad was over 83 and and my mother needed assistance due the health conditions. They were both very satisfied with the arrangements and I lived in a room inside the facility when visiting them and enjoyed the company of the elderly and the other “inmates” when I visited. Much of what is discussed in this opinion piece is correct but in my opinion the interpretation is not accurate.

      My parents in law moved in aged 90 and 88 when my mother in law required continuous care. They hated the idea but once they were settled in their only regret is that they did not do this earlier.

      The sad part is that one institution is in the process of being closed down due to lack of adequate funding. Government cuts have made the place financially unsustainable and donations from churches have dried up as a result of the fact that churches are no longer supported by the communities.

      Old people need care and our lifestyles mean that many children are no longer able to directly support their aged.

  13. One point that stands out here is that old people are living to ever greater ages. At one time we died at an age when we could still walk around easily. That would lead to an easier care solution one would think. However one female relation had her mother with her who followed her around the house, repeating the same stories because her mind was failing. A sort of imprisonment for the daughter; the mother’s life had finished, and was on a repeat loop.

    Thinking people have wished to have the right to decide when and how to die. The government has refused to even trial it and many have so little experience of thinking outside the square that they can’t consider it at all when a referendum is held. Dying could be just sweet sorrow with rituals built in that honour and show love to the person while they are still able to enjoy and participate. But even when one is old authority won’t allow you to make your decision, in a planned way, when the time seems right. And alzheimers is rife.

    So much of our medical system is spent on people who have had long lives and are worn out. My over 90 year old relation was being considered for an MRI. He stayed in his home all right, With a group of carers doing all his work and care, plus the available ones from the agencies and hospice. He fell out with one daughter when she wouldn’t travel hundreds of kms whenever wanted. She has her own health issues and he was a big man and needed turning, (preventing bed sores), which is a weighty problem which can be better handled by a residential home, with the aid of extra staff or machinery. When he contracted covid and lockdown trapped her and husband with him in isolation for a week, doing full body care, meals etc. that was unpleasant for both of them. They quickly went home after, and nursed each other as they had themselves caught covid. He wouldn’t shift closer to them and the roads to his house seemed to be permanently in roadworks.

    This rather emotional item seems to lack practical understanding of the issues, and also indicates how things will go in a world where humans are losing their grasp on their humanity. Another Mother Theresa may be needed for middle-class people in the west.

    I have attended two memorial services for beloved people in the community and one of them decided the date of demise I think. We honoured that decision and their full life with prolific projects that built community, enabling progress that benefited all. It would be good if everyone could be surrounded in love, respect and in full agency till they felt ready for the longest journey.

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