It’s time for retirement village residents to live life on their own terms

When you sign up to a retirement village, you don't expect it to bring you added stress

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When you sign up to a retirement village, you don’t expect it to bring you added stress

OPINION: If you had to guess, what would be among the most stressful processes a Kiwi retiree faces?

The death of a spouse, and close friends. Physical and cognitive decline. Increasing reliance on others. Perhaps financial insecurity. Moving out of the family home. Loss of a driver’s license.

You might not think fighting for two years to bring the roading and kerb access in your retirement village up to scratch would be among these stressors, but residents in a South Canterbury retirement village would beg to differ.

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One of these residents is currently undergoing cancer treatment. They told me treatment has been a breeze compared to the ongoing saga to bring the village infrastructure in line with the disclosure statement the operator wrote and is legally bound to present at the time of signing the Occupation Rights Agreement.

Two years ago, a formal complaint noted that substandard infrastructure in this village had caused 17 resident injuries in three years. At mediation, the residents’ committee was appointed to oversee improvements but were never supplied with the scope of works. The issue has festered into chronic toxicity, dividing the village community and leaving some residents fearful of leaving their homes.

This is not what you sign up for when you, or your parents, entrust yourselves to the care of a retirement village whose massive profit margins should easily cover the cost of such upgrades.

Unfortunately, the South Canterbury experience is emblematic of the problems inherent in New Zealand’s retirement village operators’ relationships with their residents.

Retirement Village Residents Association president Brian Peat

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Retirement Village Residents Association president Brian Peat

The Retirement Villages Act, the law which governs these relationships, is almost two decades old, written when the industry was in its infancy to provide a framework for retirement living options. It has since grown in scope and complexity and will only continue to do so as New Zealand’s population ages. Bar a bit of tinkering no review has been conducted to assess whether the balance of power between operator and consumer is appropriate.

The law as it stands works in favor of the operators, and not the hundreds of thousands of residents – you, me, your mum, your dad – who entrust them with our safety and well-being, and from whom it profits handsomely.

The process of dealing with disputes should be standardized and overseen by an ombudsman-type figure, who would ensure they were resolved within a matter of weeks and had the power to award damages. And there are other crucial matters for the government to address via legislation. Contrary to what the Retirement Village Association (the operators’ representative body) says, a code of best practice is not going to enshrine rights that retirees not only deserve, but pay for.

Retirement villages use an Occupation Right Agreement (ORA) model that is to the detriment of most residents: after vacating their units, residents or their families must wait until the agreement is relicensed before seeing their deposit again, placing undue financial hardship on families at one of the most vulnerable stages of life. Meanwhile, they could be liable for ongoing fees of up to $200 a week until the unit is occupied by the new licensee. In 90 percent of cases, the vacating resident does not share in any capital gain.

The Retirement Village Residents Association has a 12,500-signature petition before Parliament asking for an urgent review of the legislation and guaranteed return of capital. It is time for MPs to take these concerns seriously. Sooner or later, they’ll experience them for themselves.

Brian Peat is President of the Retirement Village Residents Association of NZ.

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