The revolutionary concept of an independent living village for the elderly, based around cottages rather than a hostel-type residence, was born out of the painful legacy of the Great Depression in New Zealand in the 1920s and 30s, followed by the growth and struggle after WWII.
The person who led the change was the original Missioner for the Auckland City Mission, the Reverend Jasper Calder. Practical and down-to-earth, Jasper was well aware that some of Auckland’s elderly were living in squalid and destitute conditions, and wanted to do something about it.
Rev Calder built up a number of highly successful programmes until he retired in 1946. However, Bishop Simkin wanted to keep the principles and operations of ‘Jasper’s Mission’ (as the City Mission became known) intact.
A young Vicar from Hokitika, Douglas Caswell, took over as City Missioner and moved his family to Auckland. They settled in Sale Street, in the centre of the City, within a stone’s throw of Freeman’s Bay’s slums (many of them occupied by older people). Caswell had a “flair for publicity, skill in managing and enthusing committee-men, the sense of timing and tactic of the lobbyist who has to engineer the support and consent of (as yet) unconvinced officials and Cabinet ministers,” according to Russell Stone in his history of the first twenty-five years of Selwyn Village, In the time of Age (1979).
Douglas Caswell developed a ten-year plan for the Mission within fifteen months of arriving.
As well as establishing youth hostels, the plan included accommodation for older people where they could spend the rest of their lives in comfort. It was this concept of elderly care which caught the imagination of the public and the eye of the media.
While Caswell was redefining care for senior citizens, New Zealand’s demographics were rapidly changing. In 1891, only 2.7% of people were aged over 60, and only 0.75% were aged over 70. However, this had changed to 10.4% and 3.6%, respectively by 1936. There was a desperate shortage of housing in Auckland after WWII, created by returning servicemen, post-war immigration and population growth, which meant some elderly people were under pressure.