Future provision for the care of the elderly in the Highlands is the focus of a new collaborative research project at the University of Aberdeen.
The £105,000 initiative is being co-ordinated by the University’s Business School and its Centre for Rural Health in Inverness to examine how the ageing population in rural Highland communities will shape the future of local amenities and services.
The project, entitled Our Life As Elderly, is being led by Dr Jane Farmer, Senior Lecturer in the University of Aberdeen Business School and Honorary Senior Lecturer in the University’s Centre for Rural Health, while Gerry King, Research Nurse at the Centre for Rural Health, will conduct most of the fieldwork.
It is estimated that by 2031, a quarter of Highland’s population of 210,000 will be aged over 65 years. The ageing rural population is due partly to the relocation of the younger generation to other areas and to the arrival of retirees.
Although little is known about how the ageing of rural communities will affect the health and wellbeing of residents, these demographic changes have important implications for the quality of life of both individuals and communities.
The project will employ a variety of research methods to determine the care needs of older residents, as well as looking at the contribution of the older generation to their communities.
The findings will be used as the basis for developing policy and management tools, which will in turn be used to help plan and develop future care for the older residents and to maximise their contribution to their communities.
From the outset, researchers will engage with local and national policy makers, service managers and service providers to raise awareness of the project and to gain their valuable input and advice to ensure the research is relevant to ongoing policy initiatives, such as Joint Future and Community Health Partnerships.
Dr Farmer’s pilot work in rural areas of Scotland has revealed that when relocating to a rural area people give little thought to their future care needs or to the fact that they may be distancing themselves from their families and long-standing social networks.
“Effective support networks are important for physical and psychological health,” said Dr Farmer. “The general trend of older people living in their own homes for longer means that they may increasingly rely on informal support, such as family and friends.
“Without adequate formal and informal care and good communication between the two, remaining at home may not enhance the quality of life of older people and their contribution to the local community.”
However, Dr Farmer stressed that the relocation of retired people to rural areas should not be regarded as a negative.
She said: “Early research has showed that elderly incomers at the time of moving are often in good health with few care needs and, like long-standing residents, are enthusiastic and willing to contribute to the social capital of their new communities.
“Many older people contribute on a one-to-one basis in activities such as providing transport, and visiting people who are housebound.”
The Our Life As Elderly project will look at the case studies of two rural communities to field information. Interviews will be conducted with older rural people, both men and women aged 60-75-years and over 75. The interviews will cover the residents’ care needs; social and friendship networks; their own contribution to caring; their contribution to social capital and community sustainability.
The experiences of healthcare staff will also be used to ascertain their views on the care needs of the elderly. The formal research data will be supplemented with information from rural communities in the Highlands derived from informal conversations with existing community groups.
Dr Farmer continued: “There is very little information about the balance between the needs and requirements of older people in rural communities on the one hand and their contribution to care and social capital on the other.
“This project will improve our understanding of that balance and will provide a realistic picture of the capacities of existing care networks which will help to develop solutions for unmet care needs of older people in rural communities.”
The University of Aberdeen-led project is the Scottish arm of a national project involving the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Faeroes.
Scotland’s involvement will allow comparisons between the Scandinavian countries and the Highland region of Scotland. The Scottish team also brings extensive expertise and experience in carrying out research into rural healthcare and service delivery and has a wide range of expertise, knowledge and skills that would complement those of the existing partners.
Dr Farmer added: “Scotland and Scandinavia face similar intrinsic challenges and all countries will benefit from sharing their knowledge and experience about provision of services for older people in rural areas”.
Dr Farmer’s research is being supported by the work of Dr Helen Richards and Dr David Heaney, Centre for Rural Health, Philomena deLima, University of Highlands and Islands Policy Web, and Sheena Munro, Highlands Community Care Forum.