Report cites challenges faced by rural seniors

Closings of rural hospitals

ALBANY — A new report from AARP cites lack of access to health care and absence of high-speed internet as two of the major challenges faced by older, rural New Yorkers.

AARP held a virtual hearing Tuesday morning to discuss the findings of the report that documents some of the disparities older rural New Yorkers face in accessing health care, such as high-speed internet, telehealth and family caregiving support.

“This pandemic has exacerbated the disparities rural New Yorkers have long faced, such as greater social and geographic isolation and less access to health care, nutritious food and increasingly critical high-speed internet,” AARP New York State Director Beth Finkel said.

New York has more than 1 million New Yorkers over the age of 50 in rural areas, which is greater than the entire population of several states and the District of Columbia, Finkel said.

According to the report, rural areas lose residents at rates four to five times faster than more urban areas of New York state. Those who live in rural areas are more likely than those in urban areas to die prematurely from the five leading causes of death — heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke.

At the same time, rural New York lost 3.1 physicians per 100,000 population between 2010-2017. There are half as many critical access hospitals for rural residents in the state as there are for New York City residents, according to the report.

“The findings in this report reaffirm the urgent need to address disparities in access to resources,” said State Sen. Rachel May, D-Syracuse, who chairs the senate’s Aging Committee. “Older New Yorkers in rural parts of our state face disadvantages in health care availability, economic opportunity and lack of vital resources like broadband. We must find actionable solutions that provide relief and close the gap. I will continue to fight for my legislation to provide a tax credit for family caregivers and other measures that support our rural families.”

More than 1 million New Yorkers do not have access to broadband, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Tuesday.

“A stark digital divide persists in rural parts of the state and among older New Yorkers. Residents age 65 and over lack access at almost three times the rate of New Yorkers ages 18 to 64. This affects their ability to work, access telehealth services and communicate with loved ones.”

The report contains recommendations to help alleviate the problems. Some of the recommendations include: pass legislation creating a caregiver tax credit to help offset the average of $7,200 that caregivers pay out of pocket for caregiving expenses annually. The report also recommends increasing access to technology and broadband and fund more in-home health care workers.

“Services should never be top down, meaning I should not be directing the counties on what to do,” state Office for the Aging Director Greg Olsen said. “That’s what is already kind of there. We provide over 20 different services to help support independence, but the how is really left up to the counties, their partners, their advisory councils, their long-term care councils to really develop and implement and innovate.”

Several speakers Tuesday spoke about how the pandemic highlighted the dire need for addressing many of the issues facing seniors in rural areas.

The Office for the Aging is also working on the Older Americans Act, Olsen said. He said it would help to bring forward more resources that will benefit rural areas on a sustainable basis.

“New Yorkers and the health systems that support them are witnessing important returns on these investments through the delivery of integrated social and clinical services that have greatly improved outcomes for older New Yorkers and their caregivers,” Olsen said.

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