Understanding kaumātua health and wellbeing

Associate Professor Marama Muru-Lanning and researchers at the James Henare Māori Research Centre discuss their research looking at the experiences of kaumātua as they grow older and what it means for Māori to age well.

Many Māori look forward to their later years, when they are increasingly recognised within their whānau, hapū and iwi as vital holders of whānau and hapū knowledge. As cultural custodians they are the repositories of mātauranga and their knowledge and life experience are critical to our survival as Māori. Associate Professor Marama Muru-Lanning and researchers at the James Henare Māori Research Centre are drawing attention to the important roles that kaumātua play on the marae and at home, and what it means for Māori to age well.

The research, supported by the National Science Challenge, brought together two groups of kaumātua from across Te Tai Tokerau to discuss their experiences of growing older in a uniquely Māori research approach.

What they shared were often poignant memories of their parents, grandparents and of places important to them and the whakapapa (connections) that bind them. Kaumātua participants spoke of the increasing responsibilities on the marae as they aged, and as they assumed key roles in guiding tikanga (marae protocols) and ensuring that mātauranga Māori is passed from ancestors to the next generation. These roles were prized by kaumātua who expressed a strong sense of responsibility for ensuring the welfare of their whānau, hapū and iwi. Importantly, the role allows kaumātua to remain connected and to contribute in significant and meaningful ways.

 “The value of kaumatua, their wisdom, their insight, their experiences of things that have happened in this country, they are actually the tūara, the backbone of Māori society,” Muru-Lanning says.

Yet while many Māori enjoy the role they play in later years and rate their own sense of wellbeing highly, there is a major discrepancy between their positive views of ageing and their actual health. Most kaumātua within the study had multiple health conditions. Many relied on whānau for support, but it is an irony that many are reluctant to burden whānau with care responsibilities. 

These findings have an important lesson. Kaumātua make important contributions and feel valued for doing so, but may prioritize their roles as kaumātua and the wellbeing of future generations at the expense of their own health. Understanding this dynamic and how kaumātua view their own health and wellbeing within the context of the marae and iwi has enormous potential for revealing the health and wellbeing needs of older Māori.

The James Henare Māori Research Centre has been awarded a Waipapa Taumata Rau/University of Auckland Research Excellence Medal in recognition of the research work completed with kaumātua, including a recent study on kaumātua responsibility through the first COVID-19 lockdown in March and April, 2020. With the support of the Health Research Council of New Zealand, the Centre has developed a larger piece of research with kaumātua from hapori (communities) from across Te Tai Tokerau, Waikato and Tauranga to better understand Māori wellbeing with the aim of ultimately supporting better health outcomes.

About Associate Professor Marama Muru-Lanning

Marama Muru-Lanning is the Director of the James Henare Māori Research Centre. Her research is dedicated to transdisciplinary research with Māori communities that prioritises equity.

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