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Community resources benefit rural seniors
By Steven Nalley
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Senior citizens in rural Mississippi are discovering local resources and activities available to them through a new Mississippi State University Extension Service project.
Bonnie Carew, Extension leader of the Smart Aging: Healthy Futures project, said involvement is key to healthy aging. She said seniors benefit when they engage in community activities and volunteerism.
“As important as medical issues are, you have to look a lot more broadly when you're thinking about healthy aging, and social support tends to be a big issue,” Carew said. “I'm very pleased that this project has led to the start-up of two senior centers where people can socialize and learn about healthy living.”
In October 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave MSU a one-year grant to address health-related needs of seniors in rural Mississippi. However, Carew said she wanted to use the grant as a starting point for more long-term work that rural communities can continue on their own.
“We decided we wanted to develop community-initiated projects, and that we, the university, weren't going to solve the issues ourselves,” Carew said. “If you get the community excited about certain things, they can start something, carry it forward and sustain the project.”
The project began with a series of community forums to help assess what resources were and were not available in Oktibbeha, Clay, Copiah and Lincoln counties. Carew said the forums often revealed a lack of formal resources and a need for information about what resources are available to senior citizens.
“People would say there was no transportation for seniors in their county, but in some counties, it turned out there was transportation through the Area Agency on Aging,” Carew said. “People didn't necessarily know about it. We also wanted people thinking about what was working. In some rural areas, people know each other better and there is more informal care-giving than in larger areas where people assume there are formal support systems.”
Community action groups were formed based on the discussions held at the forums. Senior centers, resource information systems, household help for seniors, and transportation became the focus of some of the action groups.
As a result of the work of these local citizens, a senior center opened in Copiah County in June and another center opened in Oktibbeha County in July. Similar groups are working to establish centers in Lincoln and Clay counties.
“We were able to establish a dialogue and help communities determine local priorities, but then they did the work and turned their dreams into reality,” Carew said.
The Smart Aging: Healthy Futures volunteer program is another component of the Smart Aging: Healthy Futures project in Copiah, Lincoln, Oktibbeha and Clay counties. This volunteer program is an effort to engage interested residents of the four counties in a training program to become volunteer lay health educators and deliver programs of particular importance to seniors in their communities.
Ann Sansing, the Extension community health coordinator, said while most of the volunteers were senior citizens, the training was open to anyone who had a passion to work with senior adults or caregivers of the senior population. Twenty-five volunteers participated in the two-day trainings and are equipped to deliver these important health messages within their circles of influence.
“You don't have to be a health educator or a health professional to be a lay health volunteer,” Sansing said. “We train our volunteers and equip them with the materials to deliver health messages to various senior adult groups or in one-on-one settings.”
Sansing reported that 170 individuals have heard these health messages, which cover topics including breast cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, Alzheimer's disease, signs of heart attack and stroke, osteoporosis, vision care, self-care and oral health. A few organizations that have heard health messages include Georgia-Pacific Retiree Club, members of a senior citizen center group, faith-based organization, senior-math club and a senior computer class.
“With this being a volunteer program, the volunteers agree to provide 20 hours of community service over a one-year period,” Sansing said. “The benefits of volunteering have been documented in various studies. Focusing on others rather than yourself can many times help you forget some of your own ailments.”