New Zealand’s age demographics are changing as people live longer and birth rates decline. Our country is not alone in now recording more grandparents than grandchildren. New Zealand’s population is approaching 5 million, with 1.5 million aged over 50. By 2030 there will be two million in this age group.

While increasing numbers of our population are living to see 100 candles on their birthday cakes, our society needs to prepare for the care of people who will have a wider range of special needs in daily care.

Retirement villages, rest homes and specially designed apartments are the leaders in this trend to meet the needs of increasing numbers of New Zealand’s elderly.

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Retirement communities and rest homes built after the year 2000 should be free of building materials containing asbestos. Communities built before that date are required to have their own long term asbestos management plans in place to protect all people on site.

Asbestos regulations currently in place

Since 2000, these special facilities have been constructed with materials free of building materials containing asbestos.

This was the year that regulations came into effect which eliminated the manufacture or importing of any construction materials containing asbestos fibres.

After more than a century of the geological fibrous rock being exploited for its strength, insulation efficiency and fire resistance, Governments World-wide are now regulating its elimination from human contact.

This follows increasing understanding of its fatal influence on humans.

Buildings in New Zealand, built before 2000, and older homes owned or rented by over 65’s are still likely to have materials containing asbestos fibres.

Chemcare, a company licensed to remove asbestos materials confirms that much of its removal work is carried out in homes owned by people of retirement age and older.

As people age, the most common pattern is for kitchens and bathrooms to be altered to keep older people safer. Handrails, walk-in showers and the replacement of steps by ramps are among the usual alterations.

Before these can be completed, any materials containing asbestos need to be identified and removed under safety regulations. There is often a need to have a home to be vacated for the removal work to be carried out.

Bathrooms  in older homes can have asbestos fibres in plumbing insulation, interior wall claddings, floor coverings and other spots. WorkSafe New Zealand’s website offers guidelines on where to look for asbestos. Employment of an asbestos testing service is often advisable.

The dangers for the elderly

Asbestos continues to be the number one workplace killer in New Zealand, with an estimated 170 people dying from the delayed effects of inhaling the fibres.

Among the fatalities are usually people in professions such as building, plumbing, electrical and fire-firefighting. Their work has exposed them to asbestos fibres which have become airborne in their work locations.

But occasional domestic accidents can also occur, usually when occupants of properties are unaware that they have been exposed to asbestos.

The fibres are so minute that they do not cause a natural cough response. The fibres lodge themselves in lung tissue and over time, causing one of a range of carcinogenic conditions which are nearly always fatal.

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Elderly people can be exposed in situations such as:

  • When undertaking home handyman renovations, drilling, hammering or sawing materials which may contain asbestos. This type of work creates “friable” fibres, dry and floating in the air, leaving the handyman prone to inhaling them.

  • If accidentally slipping or falling and damaging walls or flooring (floor tiles) which might release fibres in the moment of the accident. 

  • When younger families with the best of intentions, undertake work for elderly relatives without identifying any potential asbestos materials. 

Who among our elderly is safe from asbestos?

Perhaps the statistically safest elderly New Zealanders are those who are residents of managed retirement villages and rest homes.

Managers of these older complexes, built before 2000, are required (from April 2018), to have a long term asbestos management plan in place. Such a plan allows the asbestos materials to be progressively replaced over future years. 

These plans recognise that as long as asbestos building materials remain well maintained and undisturbed, the lethal fibres cannot harm anybody.

Each plan will also ideally have an educational component for all staff serving elderly in the community, as well as service trades as they visit each community to carry out maintenance.

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