Nov 08 2023
Patient-Centered Care

LeadingAge23: Connecting Rural Communities to Aging Services

The Rural Aging Action Network is building partnerships to provide services to older adults in rural communities.

Millions of Americans live in rural areas, and a growing number of them are older adults who may want to age in place.

More than 20 percent of the U.S. nonmetro population consisted of adults age 65 and older in 2021, a first in the country’s census history, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual Rural America at a Glance report, and an increase from 16 percent in 2010.

However, these older adults are more likely to have health complications impacted by social determinants of health, due to a lack of insurance coverage, care access and access to healthy foods.

Despite these challenges, Lutheran Services in America’s Rural Aging Action Network (RAAN) is working to connect older adults in rural Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota to community-based services.

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Popular narratives about rural communities paint them as lacking assets, and Ashley Washington, senior director of aging initiatives at Lutheran Services in America (LSA), wanted to challenge that.

“There are incredible assets within these communities, and those strong, tight-knit social bonds that we can rely on in home- and community-based services to help expand access to care for older adults,” Washington said Monday at the LeadingAge 2023 Annual Meeting and Expo in Chicago.

The LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston is in the middle of a three-year partnership with LSA to evaluate RAAN and gauge how it is addressing gaps in care for older adults, among other criteria. Speakers from the center and LSA led a session during the conference to gain      feedback from older adults and senior care organizations interested in improving services for rural communities

DISCOVER: How mobile workflows and smart devices elevate senior care.

Room to Grow for Care in Rural Communities  

Though they may own their homes or some land, older adults in rural communities likely face financial concerns, ranging from debt to property upkeep challenges. Despite these issues, many want to age in place and are reluctant to move away.

“While aging is critical in every community, it’s significantly more critical in rural communities, and thinking about how we help folks successfully age in their communities over the years is a goal for LeadingAge and a goal for many of our members who are engaged in these neighborhoods and in these geographic areas,” said Robyn Stone, senior vice president of research at LeadingAge and co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston.

RAAN has proved to be an attractive program that Stone said can inspire other aging services providers to use a partnership model to help older adults connect with services and keep their independence.

“What's really appealing to us about this project is the fact that LSA used their own networks, their own organizations within the LSA family, to become hubs and centers for outreach to older adults living in these communities,” Stone said.

Slide 1
A slide outlining the approach of the Rural Aging Action Network (RAAN), shown during a LeadingAge 2023 session Monday.


Washington said that RAAN hosts regular meetings to gather community partners, from local Boy Scouts to retired truck drivers, to share the challenges facing older adults and what people can do to address them. That could mean scout volunteers mowing lawns or farmer’s union members plowing driveways during the winter.

RAAN has helped older adults gain access to a variety of supports, from home care services to legal and translation help. The network has also been key in integrating older adults into their communities and connecting them with people they might not have otherwise met. Molly Wylie, research associate at LeadingAge, said there’s also been tremendous value in the one-on-one assistance that RAAN gives older adults.

There’s certainly more room to grow when it comes to technological literacy, however. “In one RAAN program, older adults were given iPad devices and some basic training, but they voiced that more training would be needed. And they expressed an interest in learning how to play games, call, text, video chat, use telehealth and generally gather information,” Wylie said.

Technical assistance must be consistent, Stone said.

Slide 2
A slide outlining challenges and recommendations from RAAN participants, shown during a LeadingAge 2023 session Monday.


Slide 3
A slide outlining benefits seen by RAAN participants, shown during a LeadingAge 2023 session Monday.


Washington says that this is an area where participants can contribute to the network as well. For instance, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota had a volunteer iPad technology assistance program  that  trained two older adults in the community to be peer iPad counselors.

“We're really leaning on the community partners because what we know in rural communities is that everyone relies on one another, and it is not sustainable to try to — especially with philanthropic funding — infuse capital and stand up infrastructure,” Washington said.

Keep this page bookmarked for our coverage of the 2023 LeadingAge Annual Meeting and EXPO, taking place Nov. 5-8 in Chicago. Follow us on X (formerly Twitter) at @HealthTechMag and join the conversation at #LeadingAge23.

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