Rural Challenges to Active Aging

Older adults living in rural areas of the United States encounter particular challenges as they Age Well. Larger distances, fewer transportation options, and limited access to medical and other service providers make active aging difficult for rural residents. A recent policy brief from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research outlines some common health concerns and offers policy recommendations to address these.

The brief is based on data from the California Health Information Survey (CHIS). As the most populous state in the nation, California is a strong example of a vastly diverse state— ethnically, culturally, and linguistically. As a result, the CHIS offers valuable information regarding health and well-being across diverse populations. The brief compares the health situation of rural, suburban, and urban older Californians, focusing on specific health conditions and contributing factors.

Rural and urban older adults fare worse than their suburban counterparts when it comes to diabetes, heart disease, and repeated falls, even when controlling for various demographic factors. There are many environmental factors that contribute to differences in health outcomes. For instance, rural older adults have lower levels of physical activity. In contrast to suburban and many urban areas of the state, most rural areas lack safe sidewalks, green spaces for exercise, and adequate street lighting. Access to diabetes care is also difficult in rural areas with limited public transportation, larger distances to clinics, and fewer specialists. Further, in both urban and rural areas, there are less affordable food options than in suburban areas. As a result, roughly one in every five low-income older adults in these areas cannot consistently afford adequate nutrition.

The brief offers several policy-specific suggestions to improve the well-being of rural older adults. For example, safe walking routes are needed in both urban and rural areas, and the brief addresses this by mentioning the installation of benches along walking paths frequented by older adults. In addition, extending financial incentives to grocery stores and medical providers to establish themselves in rural areas can improve access for older adults, as would the addition of community programming to encourage activity and reduce falls. Finally, the use of universal design (architecture designed for accessibility for individuals with physical and sensory limitations) and improved broadband infrastructure can be encouraged at the municipal level, as electronic health and in-home monitoring are proven methods to help older adults age in place.

The brief also points to ways that new research and thoughtful planning can help older adults Age Well in rural areas.

Source: Durazo, E.M.; Jones, M.R.; Wallace, S.P.; Van Arsdale, J.; Aydin, M.; Stewart, C. (2011). The Health Status and Unique Health Challenges of Rural Older Adults in California. UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, June 2011.

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