Tight-knit, loyal, renowned for caring on their own and for their own, the strength of NZ's rural communities is legendary. So it’s no wonder that many country folk are reluctant to move away from the place they love best, even as they age or face life-changing circumstances. The question, of course, is do they need to? Diana Noonan explores rural support options.
Once upon a time, it was almost a given that rural folk would, upon retirement, move to the nearest large town, leaving their offspring behind to care for the land. But as transport, services and telecommunications have improved in country areas, it seems that retired folk are moving in the other direction, seeking out a quieter pace of life and a greater sense of community.
Living the rural dream is all very well as long as our health holds up. If this changes, necessary trips to dental and medical professionals, hearing clinics, opticians, and hairdressers can become tricky. Suddenly, we can feel isolated, alone in the wop-wops far from the help we need. Apart from accessing support, social opportunities can also suffer for rural people who have health or disability needs, with fewer shopping trips, visits to the library, or café lunches with friends. These are the traditional reasons why rural people shift to town, but with monitoring technology, the internet, and responsive rural support services, today we can stay safe and connected wherever we live. With an adequate support package and help from family, friends, and community, things don’t need to change that much (at least not so much that we need to move to town unless it's what we really want).
Jo Kara, the Regional Manager for Access in Nelson/Marlborough and the West Coast (some of the most remote regions of the country), says a thoughtful support plan makes all the difference for rural people who have health or disability needs. “We recognise that individuals in different communities have different needs. Written into our West Coast clients’ support plans, for example, is the task of bringing in coal, which is a West Coast essential.”
Jo is also of the reassuring opinion that rural support workers have a very good understanding of rural culture and preferences. A variety of agencies deliver support to rural folk in New Zealand, and some packages include personal care hours. Support workers provide anything from dressing, bathing and grooming, to helping clients get in and out of bed.
They can help to keep people comfortable and independent in their homes, assisting with household chores such as cleaning, cooking, shopping and child care. Companionship visits can be arranged privately for those who do not have local support or while a primary family carer has a break.
Sometimes provision is made for support workers to drive clients into town for medical and personal appointments, shopping trips, and library visits.
Perhaps the best thing about being in the country is that where funded support plans leave off, your own community often steps in to offer extra help. Neighbours might anticipate your requirements before you even need to ask, picking up library books while in town, collecting a prescription in order to get it to you faster than it would arrive by post, or simply calling in for a cuppa while waiting for the school bus.
And who, in the country, hasn’t experienced that rural magic of having a local lad bring a packet of fresh venison to the door, or a fish he’s just caught, just when you didn’t think you could face another frozen chop! Or perhaps the rural fire brigade arrived to fill up your tank just as the water level was reaching its lowest at the height of the drought.
Jo says a change of circumstances can prompt rural people to consider a move to town, but with the right services, deciding to stay put is up to you. “It’s a combination of psychological, physical, financial, and social reasoning that will determine a decision to move or remain in your current home."
She’s right, of course, because although you may have all the support you need, in the end, the decision to stay put or move into town is a very individual one, best made in conjunction with those who will be by your side when you need them most: family, GP, and friends. “If you are well supported, it makes the choice that much easier.”
If you do decide to stay where you are, a psychological sense of safety can be enhanced by having the right personal medical alarm and a well thought out plan about what you might do in various emergency scenarios. Some medical alarm companies specialise in dealing with rural situations (including back-up plans for that all-too-tedious rural problem of power failure) so it pays to shop around for the alarm company best suited to your location.
Where neighbours live at a distance, a list of phone numbers, beginning with those who are most likely to be at home when you need them (which is not necessarily those who live closest), gives tremendous reassurance, as does quick one-button dialling from your phone.
Emergencies plans won't, of course, address the sense of social isolation that many rural folk feel if they can no longer get around easily. Rural roads are seldom built for mobility scooters, and footpaths may be nonexistent. With little local stores a rarity nowadays, losing a driver’s licence can at first seem to spell disaster for those who aren’t in a town. But this, too, can be managed. Something as simple as an arrangement with a friend who drives into town regularly, or who may be heading to a social gathering you'd like to attend, are ways to address transport concerns. And you, in turn, may be able to reciprocate their kindness with petrol vouchers or baking.
Regular phone chats with friends and family don’t have to be lengthy to help you feel connected and, if you are a computer-minded person, Skyping friends so that you see as well as hear them can be as good as a personal visit. Skype is free. You can learn more about it at www.skype.com
Plans give peace of mind
We’re always being told about planning for emergencies such as earthquakes, but when you’re not as young as you were, or have mobility challenges and live in a rural area, good planning is extra important.
Often it's just a matter of notching up a step or two from what your urban counterparts would do – adding a few more cans and bottles of water to the emergency stores, ensuring you have extra supplies of medications and continence items, stocking up on batteries for the hearing aids, and having an alternative heat source (such as a gas or log heater, in case the electricity is off).
If you’re not sure how far to go or simply want to double check your emergency provisions, seek advice from the agency providing your support services. If they are supporting rural people, they will understand rural challenges, and will be happy to help.
When it comes to long-term planning, nothing beats thinking ahead about your living options, in case you do have to move from your rural home for any reason. While support staff can point you in the right direction, they can’t make personal recommendations. It’s up to you to be informed about retirement village, rest home, or supported living options in your area; ideally, you'll check out these options well before they might be necessary, so you don't have to make a hasty choice in an emergency. Start by talking to your doctor, friends, and family. Arrange visits to establishments or take an interest in facilities and their settings next time you visit friends who live in them.
Downsizing to a retirement apartment or villa, or finding a smaller home in a nearby town, may be the answer, as it has been for so many rural people in the past.
Helpful rural services
- In areas where Meals On Wheels are not available, think outside the square: buy frozen meals to store in the freezer, or come to an arrangement with the local pub or café or a neighbour to provide and/or deliver a daily hot meal, or bulk meals which can be frozen.
- If you no longer drive, consider retaining your own car so that it’s easier to ask friends, neighbours, or other supporters to drive you to health appointments, the hairdresser, the shop, social gatherings, or the library.
- Where a local grocery store is out of reach, talk to your rural delivery person about having supplies (and even library books) delivered from the nearest town.
- Plan ahead so that prescription medicines can be delivered by post, or collected by others.
- Be informed about which personal medical alarm best suits your rural situation.
- Check out your local senior citizens group. Many of these organisations own their own shuttle bus which is used for shopping trips into town and for day outings.
If you need to travel to specialist medical appointments, you may be eligible for funding. Download a brochure explaining the National Travel Assistance scheme here.
Contact your local GP, closest hospital, community support groups, or your local information centre to check out volunteer driver or shuttle schemes to help you get to appointments. You can also find find free or low cost transport and shuttle services in your area on our website. Search under 'Finding services and support'.
Finding affordable accommodation in town
Whether it’s a brief 24 hour stay close to a hospital following day surgery, or a longer term stay in the city while undergoing treatment or convalescing, finding affordable accommodation in town may be necessary.
Here are some suggestions:
- Family/whānau accommodation at hospitals.
- Tourist cabin/cottage motor camp accommodation (ask about discounts for longer stays).
- Affordable motels (hospitals usually have a list of these, so phone to enquire before beginning your own search).
- Free or low cost accommodation for out of towners requiring treatment is often available through charities such as the Cancer Society or Ronald McDonald Houses; ask about your options at the hospital.
- Rest homes sometimes have a short-term room vacancy. Retirement villages may be able to offer a short-term cottage or villa prior to it being permanently occupied.
- Our website lists hospital and low cost accommodation options if you have to stay in town if someone is in hospital, or if you need to recover before returning home. Search under 'Finding services and support'.