elderly couple hugging

Many North Dakotans have deep roots in the rural community they call home. While small town life has definite benefits, many struggle to reach the status of an age-friendly community, based on criteria identified by the World Health Organization and AARP.

Jane Strommen, PhD, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension gerontology specialist, shared her concerns in a recent press release. “North Dakota is faced with unique challenges in caring for, and about, its older residents,” she said. “Two-thirds of its counties are designated as frontier (less than six residents per mile). A documented shift of the state’s population from rural counties to urban areas has resulted in a higher proportion of older adults in small towns and sparsely populated locations.”

Piloting an Aging in Community (AIC) project in rural Morton County and Lisbon, NDSU Extension will work with community stakeholder to apply the successful Community of Care model and help older adults live with autonomy and dignity.

“Assuring North Dakota is a good place to live and age well is a complex problem needing an integrated and collaborative solution,” Strommen said.

With the state economy straining under the pressures of workforce shortages and declines in production from the agricultural and oil industry, aging in community programs may relieve extra weight being carried by families and caregivers.

Helping Enderlin Area Residents ThriveIn nearby Enderlin, Tracy Ekeren heads up the Helping Enderlin Area Resident Thrive (HEART) program, which coordinates volunteers and provides travel arrangements and other services for elders in the community.

“We are currently experiencing, and often hear about, the ‘sandwich generation’ who is raising their own kids, taking care of their parents, and trying to keep a job,” Ekeren shared. “Getting to the hairdresser every week is still a priority for many of our elders. HEART helps make that happen. The elder parents will be able to get to their social and medical appointments, and the elder’s children can remain reliable employees.”

She went on to share a variety of examples that shine a positive light on the value of aging in community programs.

“We are very fortunate here in Ransom County to have our county bus that takes individuals to the Fargo area a half dozen times a month. The elders the HEART program serves are able to go to their appointment and come back immediately. Waiting around for the bus is not an option for them. Also, at times it is impossible to get their appointments on the days the bus is running.

We had an elder who was so happy that we had started the HEART program. They were in desperate need of a hip replacement. Because their children and support people lived hours away, they had no way to get to any of the follow-up therapy. They stated they didn’t want to ‘bother’ their neighbors, but they were ok if we did. We were happy to help, and arrangements were made.”

Improving quality of life through HEART is valued by Ekeren, “Many of the trips are medical-related, but there have been times when we have transported an elder to social events so they can watch their grandchildren in a play, music concert, or sporting event. Allowing an opportunity of our elders to attend these type of social/family events helps them remain active and involved and helps with their overall mental health.”