Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Problems Surface As Rural Residence Age

January 15, 2007

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 the consequences of an aging rural population in the United States and Canada?

The facts are indisputable. In the 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 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. Older farm couples farming alone. What is going to happen to family farms when many farmers can no longer manage the physical requirements of farming? Many are not emotionally prepared for anything else in their lives but farming. Problems are magnified when they have no family members who have chosen to farm.

How do they cope with farming when they seem to have no choice but to farm into their old age? If they choose to lease or sell their land, the land will become part of a trend to larger and larger family or corporate farms and contribute to the depopulation of the countryside.

2. Health care. 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. Home health care. With an aging population, who will provide eldercare for those who want to remain as independent as long as possible? This will create pressures on adult children living close by to provide the care. Their lives are demanding already with their own livelihoods and children to provide and care for. This becomes a logistical nightmare for adult children who live many miles away from the farms where they grew up.

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 or spouses care for their loved ones? They will need additional support if they are to maintain their own health and morale.

The local economy benefits when people retire in their home communities. There needs to be a basic level of medical services and housing options for rural communities to retain their aging citizens when their needs increase.

4. Shortage of volunteers. As aging takes its toll of established leaders who understand the importance of community service and volunteering, who will take their place? The next generation has multiple challenges that interfere with their willingness to serve in the community.

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. The burnout factor will take its toll on the existing leaders who find themselves short-handed.

5. Civic improvements. How do aging people regard fiscal commitments to community betterment and education? Many elderly are trying to conserve their assets for an uncertain future. Once they are on fixed incomes, they vote their self-interest.

As a consequence, they fail to vote for taxes and school bonds especially when their own children or grandchildren are no longer affected. The lack of civic improvements has a negative effect on the quality of life which, in turn, affects the ability of the community to attract newcomers and maintain its economic base.

6. Snowbirds. Does the increasing "snowbird" phenomena - younger retirees going south for the winter - lower the quality of life for the remaining citizens? More and more people have two homes - a summer and winter residence. This may affect community life as the outflow of volunteers and leaders drain both human and economic resources. How do people who plan programs and services adjust to part-time residents?

7. Mobility. What about elderly drivers and safety? Rural elderly people need to hold on to their independence and mobility. Their transportation needs become greater as they become more and more limited in their ability to drive - or to drive distances. Family and community solutions are needed for the elderly to access basic services and retain a comfortable lifestyle with dignity.