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Rural Seniors’ Support System Not A Given

“People can be well connected socially in a community, but that doesn’t mean

they are receiving support.”

Rural communities may not be as tight-knit and supportive of the elderly as is commonly thought, a University of Alberta study has found.

“There is an assumption that because rural cultural values include helpfulness and neighbourliness, most rural seniors are helped by a large group of family, friends and neighbours. But that isn’t the case for some people,” said Jennifer Swindle, a U of A researcher who conducted the study for her PhD thesis.

Swindle noted that rural communities vary in the services they offer seniors, and that some would benefit from adding more support for their elderly citizens.

In an analysis of data from a survey of 1,312 adults aged 65 and older across rural Canada, Swindle discovered that 15 per cent of people who had a circle of friends and family received no support, while up to nine per cent of seniors who received support had few people who provided help with tasks like housework, shopping and transportation to medical appointments. While some of that group may not need support and in fact could be lending help to others, some seniors may have only one or two people to rely on, Swindle noted.

“People can be well connected socially in a community, but that doesn’t mean they are receiving support. On average, the social networks in the study were comprised of 10 people, but the support networks only averaged three people.”

With government cuts in formal services and the closure of some rural hospitals, a lack of homegrown support is worrisome for seniors living in rural areas, Swindle said.

“Older people may find they are only able to remain in their communities if they have help with everyday tasks, and if they have to move away, that affects their belonging and well-being. And if seniors have few people who provide them with help, who will provide them with care as they age? Services will be needed to fill the gap, and they aren’t always available in rural areas.

“Current policy for seniors’ services relies heavily on assumptions of family support, but this study’s findings challenge that,” Swindle said. “While some rural seniors do receive help from a large number of people, others receive very little or no support. This research makes it clear that there is a place for formal services in rural Canada, because support for older adults can’t lie solely on the shoulders of families and friends.”

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