When the pandemic first took hold in America, the bulk of cases were in urban areas, like New York City. I remember at the time reading some opinions from those in rural areas of the country, who thought that being a spread out population would protect them from the coronavirus. While that may have protected them somewhat during the early period of the pandemic, the trend have now reversed, with rural areas of the country being overwhelmed by an influx of COVID-19 cases.
Vaccine hesitancy and the political influence of anti-vaxxers and covid deniers in rural America is playing a role in the rise of cases from the delta variant, but that is not the whole story. What we are witnessing are the critical deficiencies in the rural healthcare system. People are dying needlessly because there is not enough space, supplies and staffing to care for them. With the country’s elder population increasing over the next decades, this is an issue that needs prompt attention.
I witnessed the challenges facing those needing medical care in rural areas when I was a caregiver for my parents. There were no memory care facilities with available beds nearby, so my father was transferred to Roswell, over an hour and a half away. This placed a huge burden on my mother when trying to visit him, as she didn’t drive and had to take a bus to make the trip. She was so tired after one grueling trip that she fell in the middle of the night and broke her shoulder. When my father became critically ill, he was transferred all the way to Albuquerque, a three-hour trip from where my parents lived. He died without family present, as my mother was preparing to visit him.
When my mother became ill, the local hospital was unable to perform her surgery, so they transferred her to Roswell. She spent the summer there, recuperating from surgery at a skilled nursing facility. Instead of making the trip back and forth to my parents’ home in Ruidoso, I lived out of a hotel in Roswell for that summer, a pricey endeavor but I learned how important it was for me to be a hands-on caregiver advocate for my mother during that recovery period. Her follow-up care had to be carefully arranged once she got back home, because the oncologists only visited Ruidoso a few days a month. After she died, I learned that the oncologist group discontinued serving the area, forcing those with cancer to travel an hour and a half away for treatment.
Many rural hospitals have closed. Equipment and beds are limited. It’s difficult to recruit doctors and nurses to serve in rural areas. Ambulance services have also been impacted, meaning people die because they can’t get to a hospital fast enough. Specialty services and tests often require lengthy travel, a burden for many families. You can see how these issues create a perfect storm when a pandemic strikes. Many rural healthcare systems now find themselves at the breaking point.
People should be able to age in place where they wish, but they should also be aware of the challenges in aging in a rural area. It will take a mix of public and private funds along with innovative minds to fix the issues plaguing the rural healthcare system, but it is essential and we must take the hard lessons learned during these times to advocate for change.