Skip to main content

For Elderly in Rural Areas, Times Are Distinctly Harder

Resource type: News

New York Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Kirk Johnson.

Lingle, Wyo. — Norma Clark, 80, slipped on the ice out by the horse corral one afternoon and broke her hip in four places. Alone, it took her three hours to drag herself the 40 yards back to the house through snow and mud, after she had tied her legs together with rope to stabilize the injury.

A dutiful farm wife, Ms. Clark somehow even got to her feet to latch the gate. And her first call when she got to the house was not to 911, but to a daughter 30 miles away.

“I told her she’d better come feed the horses,” said Ms. Clark, telling the story from her living room overlooking her 900-acre wheat farm.

Growing old has never been easy. But in isolated, rural spots like this, it is harder still, especially as the battering ram of recession and budget cuts to programs for the elderly sweep through many local and state governments.

Ms. Clark has been able to get help since her fall two winters ago because Wyoming, thanks to its energy boom, continues to finance programs for the elderly. But at least 24 states have cut back on such programs, according to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research group, and hundreds of millions of dollars in further cuts are on the table next year.

The difficulties are especially pronounced in rural America because, census data shows, the country’s most rapidly aging places are not the ones that people flock to in retirement, but rather the withering, remote places many of them flee. Young people, for decades now, have been an export commodity in towns like Lingle, shipped out for education and jobs, most never to return. The elderly who remain — increasingly isolated and stranded — face an existence that is distinctively harder by virtue, or curse, of geography than life in cities and suburbs. Public transportation is almost unheard of. Medical care is accessible in some places, absent in others, and cellphone service can be unreliable.

Even religion and the Internet are different here. Churches have consolidated or closed — a particular hardship for older people, who tend to be avid churchgoers. And a lack of high-speed broadband service in many rural areas compounds the sense of separation from children and grandchildren, as well as the broader world.

The distance between friends is what gnaws most fiercely at George Burgess.

Mr. Burgess, who has lived and worked for most of his 96 years in Wyoming and Nebraska as a hired farmhand and in later years as a machinist, still drives his truck almost every day into Torrington, Wyo., about eight miles from his home, for a hot lunch at the senior center. But his driver’s license expires in January, and he is deeply worried that he might not pass the test this time around.

Mr. Burgess gets housekeeping assistance under a state program that helps older people stay in their homes and out of nursing care. But if he could not socialize in town, he said, he would be lost.

“I might be on roller skates,” said Mr. Burgess, still cowboy-thin in cinched-up Levis, his booming outdoor voice filling his home on a recent snowy afternoon. He glanced around the tiny, cluttered living room — the coal stove, the broken television, the walls lined with pictures of his wife, Laura, who died just over a year ago after more than 60 years of marriage.

“I wish it was different, but it isn’t,” he said. “So you endure it.”

Some people who study rural America say the tough economic times and new budget woes could make it too difficult for many rural stoics to hang on. But others suggest the fortitude of the rural elderly simply runs too deep for that.

“The people will remain, because they’re rooted and anchored to the land,” said Teresa S. Radebaugh, the director of the Regional Institute on Aging at Wichita State University. “They’ll stay no matter what.”

Verna Bairn, 67, is a farm widow who has lived all her life in Oshkosh, Neb., about 115 mostly empty miles southeast of Lingle. She has seen the young people leave, she said, and the businesses on Main Street close. She has seen the median age in Garden County — where Oshkosh, population about 900, is the county seat — climb to 45 to 50 years old, according to the census, more than 10 years older than the nation’s as a whole. The counties in northwest Nebraska are now some of the oldest in the country.

“One foot in the grave, the other sliding,” said Ms. Bairn in describing her town. Ms. Bairn has a daughter in Wyoming and a son in Wisconsin. Her husband, Edgar, died in 1998, of cancer, at 60.

“He and I had one plan for our life, and God had another,” she said of her husband’s early death and the personally hard times that followed. “We played our cards the best we could.”

It is in fact quite easy to find older people who take comfort in the surroundings they have known since they were young, however difficult things have become. Memory is everywhere, and hardship has been the norm in life, many say, so what’s new?

But an equally important reality, gerontologists and psychologists say, is that people who have managed to reach great age in a tough environment have, in turn, been toughened by the experience.

Frank Robinson, 92, embodies that life. He had to quit school at 16 and take over the family farm, near Oshkosh, upon the death of his father in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. He said he remembered times when the cash economy had all but broken down in rural Nebraska and barter was the only way to put food on the table — trading milk and cream from the family’s cows for what others in town had to spare. He worked the land for the next 61 years until retiring and moving into town in 1994.

Now a widower, with his extended family and step-children far away, Mr. Robinson occasionally hears suggestions from friends that he might be happier in an assisted-living community somewhere. The idea, those friends say, goes in one ear and out the other; still, Mr. Robinson bemoans the increasing difficulty of staying where he is.

“I don’t see how these towns keep on going,” he said, sitting ramrod straight in a housing-project meeting room, a feed-store cap on his head. “Years ago on a Saturday, Main Street was filled solid with people, and there was two or three cafes to eat at — it might be 10, 11 o’clock before they went home,” he said. “Now on Main Street on Saturday, there’s nothing.”

Some people, like Jesse Cardona, just never stop working. He chose the cowboy’s life in Wyoming, and, at 88, said he had the scars to show for it , including being kicked by a bull in the late 1970s.

Mr. Cardona has worked on the same 30,000-acre ranch — since divided into two 15,000-acre sections — near Torrington, Wyo., for more than 42 years. He lives in a house provided free by the ranch’s owners, for whom he still works mending fences in the summer.

“I told them when I retired — no more cows, I’d had enough,” he said. And he works only short days now, he said, six or seven hours, and spends the winters watching movies, preferably starring John Wayne, on his television.

“I don’t get lonely,” he said, sitting in his quiet kitchen.

Ms. Clark, the 80-year-old with the bad hip, said she did not suffer from the solitude either. Her chair is positioned to look through the big picture window that dominates her living room. On a clear day, you can see across her land and all the way, 60 miles or so, to Laramie Peak. It is a landscape drenched with the memory, she said, of her husband, Leo, who died last year after a long illness, and the six daughters they raised together on the land.

“I sit, and I look,” she said.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is an Atlantic grantee.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Related Resources



Global Impact:

United States


Center on Budget and Policy Priorities