Providing services for an aging population will be a growing challenge for rural Kansas.
The average age of rural Kansas is rising, according to 2000 census figures. In some cases, elderly residents remain in small towns that younger people have left because they no longer offer jobs and schools that support families.
Some people make the choice to return to the small towns they grew up in; others simply want to remain in their homes as long as possible. Providing the services to allow them to do that is a big challenge.
The Kansas Department of Aging has launched a new project called the Lifelong Communities Initiative to determine how well eight Kansas cities serve their older residents and what they might do to strengthen those services. The cities included in the initial project are Atchison, Concordia, Dodge City, Garden City, Great Bend, Hiawatha, Topeka and Winfield.
The effort is an important one and will become more important as the baby boom generation ages. The eight cities will present a variety of challenges. Each city will assess its strengths and shortcomings then prepare an action plan to submit to the state Department on Aging.
Some of the problems the department expects cities to identify are relatively easy to change, things like adding curb cuts for wheelchair access and making street signs larger and easier to read. The more difficult items on the list will be such things as providing transportation and health care for elderly residents.
Some of the communities in the pilot project are large enough to already have some of these services. Topeka, for instance, offers many health care and transportation options. But what about, say, Concordia? Not to disparage Concordia, but its location in the north-central part of the state leaves its residents many miles from regional health care services. There probably is no public transportation in the city, although a bus might be available to serve senior citizens.
And the services available to senior citizens in Concordia probably seem plentiful compared with those in places like Jetmore or Altamont. The younger residents of many smaller Kansas communities think nothing of driving 30 minutes, an hour or more to a larger city to shop or go to the doctor, but what happens when they no longer are able to make that drive? Family members or friends may help out in some cases, but in other instances, that may not be practical. The quiet small town atmosphere that many senior citizens choose and enjoy also may leave them isolated from services they need.
The assessments and action plans being compiled by the eight cities in the pilot study may lead to useful improvements for their residents, but the even greater challenge seems to be to provide adequate services for elderly Kansans who live in areas that are smaller or more remote than the pilot communities. For many rural parts of the state, the challenges already are huge and, if those rural towns survive, will only increase.
Providing services such as adequate health care to both young and old residents of rural Kansas will be a key element in those communities' survival.