By Diane Farsetta
Rural communities are aging more rapidly than other parts of the country. Vickie Stangel has witnessed her city’s changing needs firsthand as director of the Dodgeville Public Library.
“We have patrons who have been using our library probably 70 or 80 years,” Stangel says. “We’re seeing them going from regular print to large print and audiobooks. We take books out to the senior living facilities. Families come in with questions about dementia care and senior resources.”
That’s what prompted Stangel to join the Iowa County coalition of the Healthy Aging in Rural Towns (HeART) project. For two years, HeART has brought together coalitions from Iowa and Langlade counties and the city of Waupun with the School of Nursing’s Center for Aging Research and Education (CARE) to support rural aging-in-place.
Healthy Aging in Rural Towns
In 2018, HeART focused on gaining an in-depth understanding of challenges and resources for older residents. Each community coalition surveyed adults and family caregivers, and interviewed local health care providers, first responders, church leaders, librarians, and others.
“In addition to coming up with what I think are some really good strategies to work with our older and aging population, we’re learning how to work together as a group.” —Ruth Schriefer, member, Iowa County HeART Coalition
“In addition to coming up with what I think are some really good strategies to work with our older and aging population, we’re learning how to work together as a group,” says Ruth Schriefer, a member of the Iowa County HeART Coalition and a family living educator with the UW–Madison Division of Extension.
The assessments showed that close-knit rural communities, local media, libraries, and Aging and Disability Resource Centers are important in all three areas the coalitions serve.
Challenges to healthy aging
Common challenges include a shortage of paid caregivers, little coordination between existing services, resources being limited to town centers, and a lack of transportation options.
In response to the results, Building a Healthier Langlade County broadened its scope by expanding the definition of a caregiver, says Stephanie Thiede, a registered nurse who works for the Langlade County Health Department.
“With our methamphetamine issue here, we’re finding that quite a few grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren,” Thiede says.
HeART coalition drives solutions
Each HeART coalition worked with CARE and the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health to develop an action plan based on its assessment data. The coalitions’ goals include increasing awareness of local resources, developing programs for unmet needs, making social and community activities more accessible, and supporting family caregivers of older adults.
HeART has also introduced CARE to rural leaders passionate about making their communities more age friendly. As CARE and the Respite Care Association of Wisconsin began offering workshops for family caregivers and respite care workers, HeART contacts in Iowa and Langlade counties volunteered to host.
“We’ll be able to act on what the community has told us.” —Stephanie Thiede, RN, Langlade County Health Department
The HeART project “is allowing us to strengthen what we’re already providing and also add to it,” says Thiede. “We’ll be able to act on what the community has told us. We do a lot of surveys like the community health needs assessment, but the outcomes aren’t always obvious. I think the community will appreciate that we’re delivering something visible. That goes a long way.”