Do Rural Areas Have Adequate Elderly Care?

As the population of senior citizens in the United States grows, many people are struggling to find adequate care for themselves or for loved ones who are getting older. Many seniors live far away from their extended family, especially as more young people migrate to cities, making traditional family support inaccessible.

In urban areas, there are several options for elder care, including in-home aides to fill in care gaps and nearby elder care facilities that provide full-time care. Rural areas, however, have fewer resources available for families and more challenges to overcome.

Ultimately, older Americans living far away from populous areas often struggle to find adequate elderly care. Since more elderly people live in rural areas than in urban areas, finding solutions to this growing problem has become critical.

Logistical Challenges of Elderly Care in Rural Areas

In rural areas, transportation is an enormous challenge, especially for seniors. Elderly people might have to drive long distances to reach essentials like grocery stores and healthcare facilities, placing an enormous time and financial burden on them.

Some people decide to postpone important health appointments due to a lack of transportation or simply continue driving long after it’s no longer safe for them to do so. Rural areas have limited transportation options, leaving elderly people with little choice but to drive themselves, get help from loved ones, or hire help.

As older people become unable to attend to basic tasks like shopping and cooking or driving, care workers who do not live nearby must drive long distances to provide support. This makes it very difficult to find willing caregivers.

Many rural communities do not attract young workers, causing local services to gradually shut down and leave any remaining residents with little choice but to shop and seek out services in the closest population hub. Elder care facilities are also few and far between in rural areas, which can make it difficult for elderly residents to find care near their families.

Shortages of Hospitals and Healthcare Staff

Many rural hospitals operate at a loss, causing many of them to ultimately close. Since elderly people typically have greater medical needs the older they get, rural hospital closures are devastating to local communities. Instead of traveling a few miles for routine care visits, they must travel to their nearest healthcare facility, which could be hours away.

Additionally, many rural hospitals struggle with staffing. The United States is already facing a shortage of qualified healthcare professionals and it’s difficult for small hospitals in rural communities to attract doctors and nurses since they must often work longer hours or remain on-call due to demand and a lack of colleagues to fill in the gaps. Many doctors also simply aren’t interested in working at rural hospitals, where the pay is lower and the workdays are less predictable.

Poverty and Poor Health

Rural areas tend to have high poverty rates, combined with a lack of access to elder care. Older people often live on a fixed income, as they are typically retired. Many elderly people living in rural areas live in poverty, making it more difficult to pay for necessities like gas, food, and healthcare, let alone wages for caregivers.

Additionally, people in rural communities frequently suffer from poor health and lower rates of health literacy. With age, the likelihood of developing chronic health conditions increases. That, combined with a lack of access to healthcare, healthy food, and basic services, often leads to poor health among elderly people in rural areas. Social isolation is also a major problem that can affect a person’s health and well-being.

Poverty and poor health are linked in many ways. While these issues occur all over the country, they are more common in rural areas and frequently impact the elderly.

Telemedicine, Remote Monitoring, and Artificial Intelligence Can Help

Since transportation is a major challenge for elderly people in rural areas, minimizing trips to the clinic or hospital is an important component of improving elder care throughout the United States.

The rise of telemedicine and remote monitoring is reducing the number of in-person doctor’s appointments that are required for people of all ages. For elderly people, this eliminates the cost and challenges of traveling long distances to receive care. While not all appointments can be conducted virtually, telehealth services can greatly reduce travel needs and allow rural residents to get medical advice before problems get worse.

With new devices containing sensors, reminders, and easy reporting, remote monitoring is helping seniors maintain their independence while ensuring that their doctor is up to date on their condition. Timing is critical for seniors in rural areas since it can take a long time to be transported to the hospital in an emergency. Remote monitoring can provide important peace of mind.

Technology within the healthcare field could also prove important for reducing the impact of staffing shortages. Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are being used in hospitals all over the world, taking over some duties and helping hospital staff with others. In rural areas, these AI-powered healthcare technology solutions could help struggling hospitals by making them more efficient and automating some tasks.

Potential Policy Changes

Technology won’t solve all the problems facing seniors in rural areas. Policies and government funding need to change so more services become available to those who need them most.

Medicaid expansion within a state has been shown to reduce hospital closures, and policies based on supporting the needs of people in rural areas would likely have a major impact on seniors’ quality of life in these areas. Incentives that would bring in new healthcare providers to rural healthcare facilities, such as loan forgiveness, would also help to improve the quality of care in these regions. Incentives could also be used to attract home care aids and facilities serving the elderly.

Implementing Solutions

Solving long-term problems for elderly care access won’t be easy, but policy changes, improved technology, increased access to services, and incentives for medical personnel and caregivers will be important for helping to ensure that seniors in rural areas have options for care as they get older.

People shouldn’t be forced to leave their communities as they get older due to a lack of care. Finding both short- and long-term solutions will be critical for improving the state of elder care in rural areas so we can protect our loved ones as they reach their golden years.