A new North Dakota State University Extension initiative is designed to help older North Dakota citizens who do not wish to leave their rural communities and homes due to aging.

NDSU has launched the Aging in Community project in two rural North Dakota communities. While there are no current plans for expansion into other rural communities, Jane Strommen, North Dakota State University Extension gerontology specialist, hopes that one day the initiative will spread across the state.

“North Dakota is faced with unique challenges in caring for and about its older residents,” Strommen 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.”

This initiative is supported in part by a $1.51 million, three-year grant from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.

According to Strommen, the initiative helps rural residents stay in their homes and overcome obstacles that are common for elderly people in rural communities, such as transportation.

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“Transportation has been a big topic of discussion and a major roadblock that many older residents have to navigate when living in these rural communities,” Strommen said.

Between 2019 and 2029, the state’s population of people 65 and older is projected to increase by 32%. In contrast, the working-age population (ages 20 to 64) is projected to decrease from 59% in 2016 to 55% in 2029, placing additional burdens on a critical workforce shortage. It is also projected by the North Dakota government that more than 30% of the state's population will be over the age of 60 by 2030.

“Rural areas have some unique challenges. We have definitely seen a higher proportion of older adults living in rural communities. As many young people have moved away, we now have more older adults that are residing in those small communities,” Strommen said.

According to Strommen, family acts as an integral part of an older adult’s “first line of defense” in these small communities. However, when these older rural residents’ families leave the small, rural community themselves, those older citizens are left vulnerable.

“If their family is no longer there, those older adults are really put at a disadvantage,” she said.

Strommen hopes for this program to be a community-based and owned initiative.

“I really hope that the programs that develop will really be what the community wants and needs,” Strommen said.