The Challenge of Senior Housing in Rural America

Rural America.  The Great Plains.  The Rocky Mountains.  The Mississippi Delta.  The Desert Southwest of West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.  Local flavor and flair.  Accents, unique cuisine, colloquialisms.  The cultural diversity of America.  How do we preserve the elderly that live in these  areas and preserve the unique, cultural traits of American society in their natural habitats by allowing seniors in these areas to remain in their natural surroundings?

Seniors are becoming more migratory but there are those that wish to remain in their local communities that include rural areas where residents aren’t moving back to metropolitan areas.  The lack of senior housing options is a national problem but is exacerbated when looking at options with a local, rural focus. Concepts for senior housing and care that are designed for metropolitan markets, may not work in the rural landscape and presents policy, funding and implementation challenges to seniors in these areas.

Housing is the nucleus of stability, both in the working years and in the retirement years.  At first glance, these areas may seem like great places to live based upon lower costs associated with living in non-metropolitan areas.  However, they represent areas of extreme challenges after first glance when examining local community services that help support housing for independent living.  Concepts that are currently being pushed by federal agencies maybe effective in densely populated areas don’t translate well to a dispersed living environment where miles and acres separate neighbors and community residents.
Local communities have their unique characteristics and community based support services present their own challenges when being implemented in smaller areas primarily due to the economics and logistics associated with a rural infrastructure.

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Home improvement and repairs are difficult to achieve for a variety of reasons.  Seniors living in rural housing typically have older dwelling structures that are maintained only in emergencies and as necessary to maintain a state of functional obsolescence.  Many seniors living in these areas do not have the financial resources to assist with upgrades and repairs.  Finding qualified contractors and individuals that can perform handy work can be difficult given the dispersed nature and the cost to bring in workers from metropolitan areas can lead to higher costs.

Costs with transportation, relocation, mobility, and technology can be higher, as the physical infrastructure in the communities and the homes does not match metropolitan markets.  Mobility challenges present problems, mechanically or physically with transportation and limit the effectiveness of community based support services and their accessibility.  The increased cost of gasoline alone is problematic for both seniors and assistance providers.

If transportation choices are a limiting factor, the next line of support in rural communities falls upon family and friends.  Many family households are disjointed, whether by choice or by need, they present problems associated with caring for the elderly.

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If there is no family support, the next level of support relies upon friends and the immediate community.  In counties that lack, facilities such as adult day care centers and senior centers, how does a senior contact their peers?

Technology and tele-health work well if seniors in these areas are not only technoloigcially literate but have the infrastructure to deliver such services in remote areas.  Many residents in these areas have trouble affording basic care and food services so the additional expense for a cable modem, DSL or a cell phone may sound simple but their economic circumstances may make this additional expense difficult.
Finding solutions for seniors in these areas is tough and requires creativity as most do not want to leave their home and relocate to where the beds are, especially where they are accepting Medicaid patients.
Rural communities should focus on buidling public / private partnerships that can look beyond the edges of what housing agencies can and cannot do with their funds in some cases.  Combining the strengths of local community organizations and businesses, those living in rural areas can bridge socio-economic lines to make bonds and alliances to help achieve a common goal, improving the quality of life in old age by working together.

As part of crossing the bridge, the challenges of rural housing require solutions that are culturally relevant.  This may be reflected through race, religion and sexual orientation in rural communities that differ greatly from metro areas.  Building bonds between faith based organizations maybe the easiest logistically but most culturally challenging solution for linking communities in the quest to provide local senior care in these areas.

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What may work theoretically in the ivory buildings of Washington, DC and in cities through out the US don’t always translate to those living in the Mississippi Delta or Montana.  The economics, logistics and delivery of rural senior housing and care can’t be ignored when policy makers and administrators layout their plans.

Whatever the local solution ultimately becomes, mapping the solution to the local culture and heritage will ensure the long term success of senior housing in rural communities.

Written by George Yedinak

Thanks to Kurt Hellman, AARP’s Mississippi Director for Government Affairs for inviting Senior Housing News to the AARP Mississippi Senior Housing Conference in Jackson, MS and to those who participated.