Occupational Therapy's Place and Purpose in Aging New Zealand

By Wright-St Clair, Valerie | New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy, March 2008 | Go to article overview
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Occupational Therapy's Place and Purpose in Aging New Zealand


Wright-St Clair, Valerie, New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy


Abstract

This paper considers why the early years of this millennium form a defining moment for occupational therapy in New Zealand. It draws on two stories by older New Zealanders to build a discussion of the aging population and its implications for occupational therapy's strategic intent. Three inter-connected dynamics form the foundation of the discussion; the country's demographic transformation to an older age structure, the ethnic diversification of aging New Zealanders, and the changing nature of housing. Engagements in everyday occupations are considered. Rather than offering solutions, the paper closes by raising relevant questions about the future place and purpose of occupational therapy within the emergent context.

Key words

Aging population, ethnic diversity, housing, enabling environments, occupational therapy

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The early years of this millennium are, I believe, a defining moment for occupational therapy in New Zealand. Three notions lead me to this conclusion. Firstly, New Zealand's aging population presents the opportunity to gain new understandings about being meaningfully occupied throughout life. This is especially important as an increasing proportion of people will live a third of their life, or more, beyond the traditional working years. Secondly, New Zealand is home to an ethnically diversifying group of peoples therefore, what constitutes meaningful occupation is changing. In future, the range of elders' everyday occupations is unlikely to fit the current picture. And thirdly, the aging of the population is taking place in the midst of a transforming environmental context as the nature of housing changes within local communities.

Recent in-depth conversations with New Zealand elders drew me to reflect on occupational therapy in the context of the aging population. The aim of this discussion therefore, is to present some core information about the demographic and housing changes pertaining to older New Zealanders, and to share my reflections on occupational therapy's potential place and purpose within this evolving context. Rather than addressing occupational therapy practice with older people per se, a broader view of the practice context is taken. Ultimately, I put forward three salient questions for consideration. In offering these questions, I do not purport to have the answers but believe the time is right for stimulating informed dialogue, for considering the profession's horizon of vision, and for creating a strategic direction. I suggest it is timely for occupational therapists to ready themselves for the rapidly emerging practice context in which more than a quarter of New Zealand's population will be aged 65 years and older.

As a first step, the aging population is one of six key areas identified by the Occupational Therapy Key Strategic Stakeholders group as "important to the future of the profession" (Occupational Therapy Key Strategic Stakeholders, 2007, p. 17). While the stake has been placed in the ground, I believe that meaningful questioning and dialogue is yet to be undertaken. Thus, this article invites you, the reader, to make your own meaning of the discussion, to reflect on possible environmental and practice scenarios, and to let your own questions come forward. If we are to engage in rich dialogue about occupational therapy's social and occupational contribution in the face of the aging population, then many more questions must be raised and considered.

The foundational notions for this article arose from a current study which seeks to understand the complex phenomenon of being aged through exploring the ordinariness of the everyday for those who live in advanced age. Research conversations were conducted with 15 Maori and non-Maori elders; eight women aged between 77 and 95 years, and seven men aged 71 to 97. All were living in private dwellings within Auckland's North Shore community. Interpretation of the findings is still in process.

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