By Jon Bailey
Many rural areas of the United States are experiencing significant demographic shifts, chief among them an aging population. In 2007, approximately 15 percent of rural residents were 65 years of age or older, 25 percent greater than in the nation as a whole. The nation's population of those 65 or older is predicted to double by 2030, reaching 20 percent of the nation's total population, and the fastest group age cohort in rural America are residents 85 and older. An increasingly aging population leads to greater incidences of chronic diseases and disability, taxing an already stressed rural health care system. An aging population also brings with it numerous social and community issues. A large portion of rural seniors live at home alone, without a family caretaker to provide or obtain necessary health care services.
While seniors have nearly universal health care coverage due to Medicare, there are certainly issues related to rural seniors that should be addressed in health care reform legislation. Seniors want to remain in their communities. Providing health care services in community settings through rural health clinics, federally qualified health centers, and critical access hospitals can help them do so. Health care reform legislation can help address rural health care worker shortages by enhancing Medicare funding of telemedicine and other health care information technology uses in more health care facilities frequented by rural seniors. Lastly, strengthening long-term care services and support is crucial to helping more seniors stay in their rural communities.
Jon Bailey is with the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyon, Neb.