Living Longer and Better in Rural America

Health eVillages has partnered with Tivity Health again this year to help address issues around rural aging in our country. Ask anyone near retirement about their hopes for the future and you’ll find many commonalities. People expect more from their Golden Years today—not just more lifespan, but a more vital and active lifestyle. Even as Americans become older, the majority of adults by and large want to age in place, remain in their homes, and stay active with family and friends.

Unfortunately, these simple wishes are not easily achieved for many older Americans in small towns and rural areas– there are far fewer support programs and services available to those who live beyond the suburbs.

There is much to overcome. A higher prevalence of chronic disease and  disability, and a lower incidence of healthy behaviors which contribute to a widening disparity in life expectancy between. Limited access to basic healthcare, let alone specialists, is a complicating factor, but so is social isolation. Too many rural elderly adults live alone and lonely, and it negatively affects their well-being and their mortality rates.

The good news, awareness on rural aging issues is growing, and a number of solutions are surprisingly simple. For example, transportation is a primary concern when doctors’ appointments, grocery shopping, and other errands are miles away. Yet group automobile insurance is often too costly to allow local organizations to pitch in. Some states are now working to provide policies to cover volunteer drivers, or to partner with “ride-sharing” services such as Uber and Lyft.

Another case in point is SilverSneakers, a program Tivity Health  offers to help seniors stay active and healthy through free fitness classes covered by many Medicare plans. Any time I visit a SilverSneakers site, what’s remarkable to me is not simply the physical benefits of these fitness classes. It’s the improved mental health, the social connectivity, and the empowerment of seniors who are living proof that getting older doesn’t have to mean becoming frail.

Across the country, innovative approaches are emerging as community-based organizations use their collective resources to fill gaps in services available to rural seniors. In Tennessee, Mercy Community Healthcare has partnered with Health eVillages to provide blankets and gift cards to new patients with the goal of getting more seniors into a clinic to access basic healthcare services.

For still others, technology is the focus. Although the high-tech cannot replace the high-touch in elder care, telemedicine can supplement in-person physician attention and online communications can complement face-to-face social interactions. For these plans to reach their full potential, however, rural areas will require better broadband service.

We will need buy-in from everyone – including policymakers and those who have a public platform to broaden awareness. That’s why I went to Washington, D.C. recently to highlight the urgent need for action on rural aging issues around the country – but also the solutions we’re uncovering. If we – as a collaboration of older adults, family members, caregivers, neighbors, community leaders, academics, health experts, and of course policymakers – can work together to build on our progress, we can unlock the potential for rural Americans to age in-place and in-community with the vitality they deserve.

Donato Tramuto is the founder and president of Health eVillages and CEO of Tivity Health, parent company of SilverSneakers. Tivity Health and Health eVillages, co-hosted an expert panel in Washington, DC on January 25, 2018, on Aging in Rural America: The Growing Crisis, A Movement for Change.

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