If rural communities aren’t proactive in providing a good quality of life to senior citizens – most of whom are Baby Boomers – they will leave the towns, and communities will be left with a sharp drop in rural populations, according to researchers who are studying how seniors can best age in place.
David Peters, professor of rural sociology at Iowa State, co-authored a paper with Ilona Matysiak, a visiting scholar at Iowa State and associate professor of sociology at Maria Grzegorzewska University in Warsaw, Poland, that was published in Journal of Rural Studies.
“If there’s not services in those towns, for those seniors, if there’s not activities, if they don’t feel valued, they’ll leave and we’ll see a sharp drop in a lot of rural populations,” Peters told the Daily Yonder. “And that has implications for local government aid that’s based on headcount.”
He added that given the size of the Baby Boomer segment of society, and the fact they tend to be disproportionately located in rural communities, people could see double digit drops in population in the next couple of years.
“Smaller and more remote communities usually do not possess enough resources and economic base to maintain local healthcare facilities or grocery stores,” Matysiak told the Daily Yonder. “It is also more difficult to attract medical professionals or entrepreneurs to work and live in such communities, as salaries are usually lower, and a rural setting does not provide similar career development opportunities to that in larger cities.”
“In the case of local businesses and small medical practices, there is often a problem with the lack of successors,” she added. However, according to Matysiak, it is in the best interest of small towns to try and cater to the seniors, whether it’s healthcare or entertainment, to help retain them as residents.
According to the research, “rural communities can maintain a good quality of life among older residents thanks to building cooperation between relevant local institutions as well as partnerships with external organizations that facilitate aging-related service provision. Importantly, people’s community engagement and participation in decision-making is crucial for both age-friendly and intergenerational planning”
The researchers used data from the U.S. Census and Iowa Small Towns Project, which has surveyed residents from 99 small towns in Iowa every ten years since 1994 to examine “senior smart towns.” Senior smart towns are communities where seniors can live on their own “safely, independently and comfortably.”
And despite what some may think, rural America is growing.
Over a third of rural counties experienced population growth because of a rare combination of natural decrease and net migration between April of 2020 and July of 2021. Between 2010 and 2020, only 13% of rural counties experienced population growth in this way, according to University of New Hampshire demographer Ken Johnson.
Johnson said that in counties that receive an influx of seniors—many from retirement migration, and especially to high amenity areas like recreation and retirement counties—they represent a significant amount of human capital and expertise.
The survey questions relate to quality of life, use of local services, perceptions of community leaders, social capital, civic engagement and community attachment. For this study, Matysiak and Peters focused on small towns with a higher percentage of people aged 65 and older compared to other rural communities.
In addition to keeping rural populations afloat, keeping older residents in a rural community is a good idea because they can provide guidance to the younger generations.
“Senior leaders have a lot of experience,” Peters said. “They have a lot of connections, … and they can be a resource to mentor younger leaders.”
“Many of these migrants have years of experience in big bureaucratic and professional organizations,” Johnson said. “They know how to write grants, work in complex bureaucracies and have broad professional contacts. Often that can give the communities that they move to an advantage in gaining access to grant funded federal and state programs that might expand health care and cultural opportunities. Communities must ensure that they take advantage of all this expertise among new migrants who have chosen to come to these communities.”
For younger people hoping to change the status quo in a community, seniors can also provide their social standing and their gravitas in the community to say things can change, in addition to having time and money to spend on local projects, Peters said.
“So you can really draw on seniors as a resource in the community to do all sorts of community projects,” he added. “They also give back in other ways by volunteering, providing guidance, providing their time and money, as I said, and I think that’s what makes these smart senior towns also just good communities to live in overall, even if you’re not a senior.”
In other cases, seniors remain in their communities for a variety of reasons, Johnson said.
“Many have spent decades in the community and have deep ties to the people, institutions and organizations in their communities be them religious, social, or fraternal,” he said. “It is difficult to give up these ties to migrate to a new location and have to start over building this web of relationships later in life.”