A good, hard look at ourselves

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    Gran died on her 102nd birthday — a typically neat departure, faintly resonant of the flourish with which she’d finish off a particularly difficult contract while playing her favourite card game, bridge.

    But it was only while constructing her eulogy earlier this year that it struck me that Gran’s whole life had been purposefully marked with this same sense of neatness — especially in how it had been intricately bound by a sense of place. Barring a short posting to Northern Ireland after the war and a brief move across the county boundary into Staffordshire, Gran’s whole 102 years had been spent within a circle of Shropshire no more than 15 miles across, centred on a hill called The Wrekin.

    This strong identification with clustered landmarks, farming families, towns and villages are what gave Gran her resilience. The familiarity bred confidence.

    Resilience is the major theme of a new study into Waiheke that centres on a group of older renters and looks at how our changing social makeup — housing, community, tourism, population growth — affects what the researchers rather dryly describe as their “experiences of islandness”.

    Titled Older residents’ experiences of islandness, identity and precarity: Ageing on Waiheke Island and authored by three University of Auckland researchers Tara Coleman, Janine Wiles and Robin Kearns as well as Laura Bates from the University of Alberta in Canada, the study uses a mix of Gulf News articles and interviews with 13 renters aged 56 to 73 to paint a picture of an island where community is vital — in the truest sense of the word.

    What’s clear is that for those renting on Waiheke amidst the building boom of new arrivals and designer holiday homes, living on an island is a double-edged sword. The report talks much about how the precariousness of these elderly lives is sharpened by being part of a changing small community in flux and makes a point that “several participants became tearful while reflecting on how Waiheke had changed since they had first moved to the island”.

    On the negative side of the ledger there’s also the seemingly unavoidable facts that “Waiheke has become an intensified outpost of Auckland, with its housing unaffordability often mirroring, if not amplifying, many of the issues being experienced on the urban mainland” and “such precarities appear amplified and include those associated with material dimensions of islandness (ie, boundedness, smallness and relative isolation) as well as the sense of collective disruption and the changing community character as visitor numbers increase and housing unaffordability worsens”. 

    So precarious, yes, every week I hear of someone or some family moving off island saying life has become too expensive. But unliveable? Certainly not.

    “Several noted that, as long-term ‘old Waihekeans’, they could draw on their local knowledge to ensure their continued enjoyment of the island by visiting favourite places, ‘secret spots’ and isolated beaches away from popular tourist sites. Some participants also explained how their involvement in community mechanisms (eg, local volunteer work, or offering neighbourly help, support and transport) enabled them to uphold the ‘old Waihekean way’ and maintain their experience of the island community and identity.”

    It’s telling that, as well as beaches and “special community spaces”, the cinema was singled out as an important community hub.

    Studies such as this are wonderfully enlightening both for “old Waihekeans” and those more recent arrivals — only by knowing each other and our effects on each other can we make concerted decisions about how we must live alongside each other.

    Waiheke’s “boundedness” and “smallness” make us an ideal community in which to effect real beneficial change (it’s worth reading our article on Vector’s rollout of charging stations for electric vehicles to see how this potential can be realised) but this is only going to work if we take the time to get to know who our fellow neighbours are.

    As we face down another round of local body elections, it’s beholden on us not just to turn out and cast a considered vote but also to understand how that vote will affect all of us through our changing community.

    Change is not a negative force — but, equally, it’s not as strong a force as our innate sense of belonging. Which is something the study’s authors put quite nicely.

    “Despite noting that the island community and identity ‘used to be nicer’, precariously placed Waiheke residents in our study remained loyal to their island home and were determined not to leave the place that provided them with a sense of belonging and life enjoyment. This emotional attachment to the island was so strong that it contributed to older renters’ resilience in the face of housing and ageing related precarities.”

    I think it’s an emotional attachment that Gran would certainly recognise. • James Belfield

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