Study learns from kaumātua – “life is great today”


Rei Ngatai (Te Atiawa / Ngati Rahiri).

Research into what it means to be a Māori elder today has found kaumātua and kuia love life, and are actively engaged in their community and whānau.

Findings from a feasibility study were presented to the Age Concern New Zealand / New Zealand Association of Gerontology 2009 Conference by Dr Lorna Dyall and Professor Ngaire Kerse.

Dr Dyall said a study was conducted with 33 kaumātua and kuia aged between 75 and 79 to find out what growing old means to Māori, what challenges are faced, and how elders see themselves in today’s context.


“We learnt that life is a journey, and that through all stages of life there are opportunities for learning and development,” said Dr Dyall.

“Many of the people included in the study were very involved in community and their whānau. An interpretation is that, as they got older, they looked outward more and their spirit developed.”

Older Māori had faced an enormous number of challenges through their lives, but remained extremely positive.

Our kaumātua have faced the loss of loved ones, experienced poverty, been made redundant and taken up new employment, been involved in Treaty issues, coped with numerous changes in political policies, been born at the end of a depression and lived through World War II.

“But despite experiencing some really hard times, we found people had a great sense of humour and were very engaged in the world.

“One in five were still in the paid workforce, most were involved in supporting someone in some way, and they had regular contact with their mokopuna. All said having good health until the end of their life was extremely important.”

Elders’ message

Dr Dyall said a message that came through clearly from the study was that we shouldn’t be afraid of ageing.

“Ageing is part of our journey of life. The elders told us that their life is still great today. As researchers we were privileged to sit at the feet of elders and help celebrate what they have achieved.”

Key results

Some key results from the feasibility study, which are not representative of the older Maori population but provide insight, include:

  • a third were still married
  • 92 percent of the participants could converse in Te Reo and just over half were native speakers
  • elders enjoyed Māori media as part of their contact with the outside world
  • almost all could identify their tribal group and two thirds considered that their hapū was very or extremely important
  • almost all knew names of their parents and grandparents, and culture, religion and spirituality were an important part of their lives
  • the majority had children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and were involved in their lives, as mentors, guardians and as elders
  • two-thirds of participants were active and involved in voluntary work
  • just under a third were in paid work
  • two-thirds of participants had identified plans in place for what they would like to see happen at the end of their life
  • in terms of their health, two-thirds had cardiovascular disease
  • one in four had mild depressive symptoms
  • one in four had vision issues that affected them every day and slightly fewer had hearing issues
  • one in four had had a fall in the past year and half had an injury from that fall
  • just under half had limited respiratory function
  • good food was important to elders, including traditional kai
  • elders were concerned about the environment
  • discrimination and colonalisation had impacted on their lives
  • despite health and social status, they considered that you can do lot to keep healthy.

Dr Dyall and Professor Kerse said it was vital policies developed for an ageing population included the views of Māori.

“These views must be incorporated in planning, developing and delivering health and related services for older people.”

Larger study in 2010

Dr Dyall said that, as a result of the feasibility study, they had found it was possible to work in partnership with older Māori and will together go forward and complete a much larger cohort study in the Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, Whakatane and Opotiki areas beginning in 2010.

“This study will aim to interview 600 Māori aged 80 to 90 years, alongside an equal number of non-Māori aged 85 years.”

The new study is the LILAC study Te Puawaitanga o Ngā Tapuwae Kia Ora Tonu, to be funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand and Ngā Pae O Te Maramatanga.


Dr Lorna Dyall and Professor Ngaire Kerse are from the School of Population Health, Auckland University. The feasibility study was funded by the Health Research Council and National Heart Foundation. It was also supported by Roopu Kaitiaki, Korowai Aroha (Rotorua) Māori Health Services (Whakatane Hospital) and Whakatohea Iwi Health and Social Services (Opotiki).

Elders had extensive input into the questionnaire, worked with the researchers to help establish relationships, were involved in interviews, and provided feedback on the study findings.

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