Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

The Aging Of Rural America

July 3, 1995

Have you ever felt you've ever had the right question but didn't have any answers? Let me try one out on you. What are consequences of the aging of rural Americans and Canadians?

The facts are indisputable. Vast portions of the Midwest, Great Plains and Prairie Provinces, rural communities have a rapidly aging population with a dearth of families in the child bearing and child rearing years. In some cases the proportion of those 65 and older reaches twenty percent of the population.

What does this mean for life in these communities? What kinds of issues, opportunities, challenges and problems does this pose for people in various walks of life?

Please write to me and share your perceptions of what is happening. If you are a professional dealing with some aspect of aging, I would like to hear from you. Help me identify the experts who are dealing with the broad social and economic implications of this issue.

What am I looking for? I'll raise a few issues of my own.

1. What is going to happen to family farms when many owners reach retirement age or can no longer farm? What happens when these families have no family members or offspring interested in farming?

How do the elderly access their assets short of selling out? How do they cope with farming when they seemingly have no choice but to farm into their older years? Who is buying? Will there be a shift to corporate agriculture or to larger and lager family farms for those remaining farmers in the community?

2. How are the elderly going to receive quality health care in an economy that can no longer support rural hospitals? What kind of health care system can meet the needs of rural communities? Who will provide the services? Where will they be delivered? How will medical services link up to overcome the distances involved with emergency care?

3. With an aging population, who will provide the care for the elderly who want to remain as independent as long as possible? What kind of issues does this pose for rural middle-aged parents who are caught in the sandwiched generation - launching their own children into adult life while looking after the needs of their aging parents.

The economy has evolved into a two income society. Many women have entered the work force and can no longer provide day-to-day care. How do children cooperate in providing for the needs of aging parents without one sibling - often the closest daughter or daughter-in-law - bearing the major burden of care and responsibility?

How do elderly siblings care for family members? What kind of support do they need to deal with their own strength and health limitations?

4. As age takes its toll of established leaders who understand the importance of community service and volunteerism, who will take their place? Will the next generation of leaders respond with the same commitment and dynamism toward community affairs?

There are competing realities - a shrinking economy, multiple entertainments and diversions, fewer people to draw on for leadership, women involved with heavy responsibilities - including full time employment - and increased commuting for jobs and services.

5. How do aging people regard fiscal commitments to community betterment and education? Do they retreat from voting for taxes and school bonds because their own children or grandchildren are no longer affected? How does an aging community maintain quality human services when the tax base is eroding and the older population is trying to conserve their assets for an uncertain future?

6. Does the increasing "snowbird" phenomena - younger retirees going south for the winter - lower the quality of life for the remaining citizens? How do communities adapt to the outflow of volunteers, leaders and economic drain for significant periods? How do programs maintain their continuity?

What are the basic services and support base needed to make the home community an attractive choice for retirement? How do communities gear up to provide these services and housing alternatives?

7. What about elderly drivers and safety? How are decisions made to stop driving? How is basic transportation needs going to be met?