Rural America is aging faster than the rest of the country. And while rural folks are known for their sense of independence and resilience, aging well in rural areas means staying connected to the community — which sometimes means relying on other people.
The Challenges of Rural Aging
Seniors in rural areas face many challenges that their urban counterparts don’t. As younger people leave the countryside for different opportunities and older adults stay, there are gaps in resources. Fewer doctors practice in rural areas than in metropolitan ones, and older adults in those regions may experience less mobility and more chronic illness than those who live in cities.
Staying active and getting out of the house gets harder as people age and their physical abilities change. In rural areas, which tend to be less walkable and have little or no public transportation, people who don’t have a car or can’t drive may be homebound. Accessible houses and buildings are also hard to come by; some places lack motorized doors or ramps for wheelchairs, which makes it more difficult to navigate those spaces.
These limitations put aging seniors in rural areas at greater risk for isolation, and that’s bad for their health. Research shows that the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Older adults who move to rural areas also say it’s hard for them to meet new people and make new friends.
Solutions for Rural Seniors
So how can older adults stay active and connected to others in a rural area? Sites like AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect put them in touch with resources for medical care, meal delivery or opportunities to socialize. Community centers, places of worship, and social clubs are great for meeting new people and making connections. Volunteering is especially beneficial: not only does it offer people age 50 and older a sense of purpose and fulfillment, but it also helps them stay connected to their neighbors and their community. For example, some older adults volunteer with local organizations to deliver meals, check in on less mobile older adults, and even provide rides for them.
Technology can also help reduce isolation and improve the health of rural seniors. Social media and video-calling technology like Skype and FaceTime can make it easy to stay in touch with distant family. Doctors have been using this technology to make specialized medical care available to patients in rural areas; they can have a consultation with a patient in a distant place through a video conference, or provide assistance to another medical professional in a rural hospital or clinic.
Staying connected to family, friends and community is vital to enjoying older adulthood anywhere, and it’s even more important in rural areas. If you’re not sure about your level of social connectedness, the Connect2Affect website has a self-assessment and resources for preventing social isolation. And if you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, visit the Get Involved page at aarpfoundation.org.