Making Connections: Lessons Learned in Rural Aging Partner Engagement

With the advent of social media and such tools as Skype, WebEx, and GoToMeeting, one would imagine connecting with anyone in any setting – urban, rural, or otherwise – would be a matter of simply pressing a button and letting technology do the work. 

And we have found, as we round out Year 1 of Empire Health Foundation’s Rural Aging Services Program, one would be wrong.

Not only is information infrastructure in rural areas less-than-robust (see map below; arrows point to some examples of partner locations), but many of the people and organizations with whom we are looking to partner might not adopt tools like those mentioned above even if the infrastructure were there.  We have heard the phrase “I do/(s)he does not use email” more than once, and a good deal of senior service-related work happens ad hoc in the basements of churches and other community buildings, making home phone numbers (yes, land lines) a common piece of contact information.  Moreover, dire straits for nonprofits in rural areas can mean that Internet is the first thing to go, or that they never acquired it in the first place.

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Making connections in these communities requires a couple of changes in practice and habit that go a long way toward establishing strong relationships with rural senior service partners.

#1 Windshield Time

In-person meetings in the communities with whom we are working were the key to successful engagement in these rural towns.  We quickly learned in Year 1 that rather than ask a group of potential partners – who are often the busy “wearers of many hats” in their communities – to travel hours each way for a meeting in the city, we must go to them.

More than a matter of mere convenience, making the journey to a rural community is an indication of a deeper investment in our partnership with them.  It says, “Yes, I am willing to spend hours in the car to see your town in action,” and “Yes, I want to get the full experience of what your community has to offer.” Many of the seniors we engage with regularly have been living in their towns for at least 50 years, if not for their whole lives.  They are intimately familiar with the evolution their towns have experienced over time and with the rich histories there. 

For example, I learned recently that Garfield, WA, a farming community of about 600 people, was a center of agricultural innovation in the early 20th century.  My tour guide, a lifelong resident of Garfield, informed me, “You know, this is where they invented the harvester reel for harvesting pea pods and the like? In the 30’s, these two guys working for J.E.  Love Company invented it, right here in Garfield.” (The patent number is US 2024735 A, if you’re interested in looking it up.)

Showing these folks our investment in learning about their communities, as they experience them today and as they have experienced them over the course of a lifetime, is absolutely essential to building a strong partnership.

#2 Adapting for Partners

Sometimes a technology solution can actually become a barrier to communication with rural partners.  During our recent application cycle, board members from a senior center in Newport, WA – the seat of Pend Oreille County, located some 47 miles northeast of Spokane – emailed us in regard to our online application system, which they were trying to access from their home computers.  “Unfortunately, Hospitality House has only a very old computer and no internet,” they informed us.  “We are attempting to complete this grant application on a notebook and a home PC.” Unreliable Internet connectivity made applying online quite burdensome for them, so we sent along an editable document for them to complete off-line and email back for me to transcribe into the online system.

While this situation was unique, it serves as another indicator of our investment in potential partners.  Being willing to change our approach, especially if it is a bit of extra time commitment, shows that we value their contributions as expressions of a community voice that we might not otherwise have heard.

#3 Hearing Seniors’ Voices

Interestingly enough, one of the most effective means by which I have gained insight into the lives of rural seniors themselves is through handwritten correspondence and testimonials for programs we are looking to support.  Strong connections with the folks being served give us an idea of the roles played by programs in the lives of “our Seniors,” as many partners put it.  Consider, for example, the following excerpt from a testimonial for an exercise class for seniors in Curlew, WA (population 118):

Transcript: “I am a 75 year old female.  Our exercise class is great for many reasons.  I want to be in good shape in 10 years.  Will only be able to reach that goal by doing.  It gives us a reason to get out of bed.  Seeing friends, laughing, singing, and sharing when ones are in need.  Thank you for continuing to support us.”

Transcript: “I am a 75 year old female.  Our exercise class is great for many reasons.  I want to be in good shape in 10 years.  Will only be able to reach that goal by doing.  It gives us a reason to get out of bed.  Seeing friends, laughing, singing, and sharing when ones are in need.  Thank you for continuing to support us.”

This note made it to us only after an email introduction via another EHF staff member, several rounds of phone tag between the rural aging team and the partner, and three consultations and revisions of the proposal.  Without demonstrated commitment to building our connections with the communities we are working with, we would not have this sort of insight.

Conclusion

The key to working with senior-oriented partners in rural areas is demonstrating an investment in your relationship with them. Time, patience, and attention to the various community voices that arise – in whatever medium – are critical to building strong relationships with any partner, but all the more so, we’ve found, when working to serve seniors in rural areas.