Greater improvement and coordination of government policy programs and community resources would improve the mental health of rural seniors in Canada, university researchers said during a conference on aging in Chicago.
During their panel presentation titled “Aging and Rural Mental Health: ‘I Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Better,’” that included a video presentation of testimonies from seniors on quality of life, during the Aging in America conference by the American Society on Aging, program coordinators and researchers from the universities of Regina and Saskatchewan said low- to moderate-income seniors living at home in various towns of the rural western Canadian province of Saskatchewan report that enhancements in senior housing, public transit, Meals on Wheels, health services, home care and public infrastructure would elevate their mental health status.
Nuelle Novik, MSW, PhD, RSW, assistant professor of social work at the University of Regina and a researcher on aging issues, said a winter report titled “Rural Healthy Aging Interventions” focused on the government and community actions taken to enable rural seniors in Saskatchewan, Canada to age in place.
A community-guided research effort of three years, the study was the result of the two universities’ partnerships with local organizations and direct collaboration with members to conduct two years of interviews of seniors in the rural towns of Watrous, Young and Woseley. The work is built on a similar study conducted on the other Saskatchewan towns of Preeceville, Rosetown and lle a la Crosse.
The report can be found at http://www.spheru.ca, the website hosting research work by the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit (SPHERU), a bi-university health research department based at both the universities of Regina and Saskatchewan since 1999.
Senior Testimonies Helpful
“There is strength in the stories people tell us,” Novik said. “We recognize the reality [they face]. [We must] pay attention to and acknowledge what seniors are telling us. Health care is over simplified in dollars and seniors are overlooked.”
She explained that, in Canada, there is little government support for helping rural seniors age in place and there is a lack of research on the health needs of rural seniors. Most data and government policies are geared toward seniors in the cities.
Consequently, her goal and that of other SPHERU researchers is to capture and to study the views of rural seniors about their health and quality-of-life needs and share their discoveries with local and provincial government agencies and federal policy makers, including the Canadian Ministry of Health.
If they are aware of the needs of rural seniors, government officials can craft, fund and execute policies that bridge identified gaps in those communities, Novik said.
Specifically, rural seniors in Canada have less access to medical care as many healthcare services have re-located to the cities, she said. The cost of medicine in general and ambulances in the city have become expensive. A shortage of rural physicians force seniors to locate to the cities, thus, compromising their ability to age in place.
When studied by SPHERU, researchers found that seniors did not know enough about the mental health, the medical specialty of podiatry, respite care and cognitive health services covered by Saskatchewan Health on the provincial level to make sound choices about their plan of treatment.
In describing the trials faced by seniors, Novik focused on a testimony by Thelma, a 93-year-old wheelchair-bound widow on a remote farm in Saskatchewan. Thelma recounted how her neighbors bring her water as it is difficult to obtain on the farm. Laughing, Thelma said she used to play cards but now she has no one to play with. She spends her days watching TV and talking on the phone.
SPHERU Research On Rural Isolation
According to SPHERU research, Saskatchewan has a shortage of home care workers, Novik said, making it difficult for rural seniors like Thelma to obtain medical care. Economic changes in the province and the cities brought on youth flight, which, in turn, lowered the population.
SPHERU research finds rural communities in Canada are facing challenges in assisting seniors overall. Saskatchewan has the highest percentages of seniors in the country and is among a few provinces without a masterplan for serving them. Novik pointed out that the province has a size of 251,700 square miles, the second largest land mass in Canada with a population of 1.11 million residents and is bordered on the west by the Province of Alberta, on the north by the Northwest Territories, on the east by Manitoba, and on the south by Montana and North Dakota.
“They have trouble meeting health and mental needs of seniors,” Novik said. “Our population is urbanizing. Some communities have no health workers in those areas. [Some seniors] will be lucky to have mental health services in their homes. They have to travel to get [the] services [they need] or [they] don’t get them.”
Moreover, rural seniors tend to have more mental health stressors than their urban peers, including drug and alcohol addictions, poorer physical health, more functional disability, more sedentary lifestyles, make less use of preventive care and more chronic illness.