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Rural Health Information Hub

Mental Health Program Considerations for Rural Older Adults

Older adults often face significant life changes as they age, such as changes in health, loss of a spouse or partner, and decreased independence, and they may also be at higher risk for mental health conditions. Other risk factors for mental health conditions among older adults include social isolation, trauma, and elder abuse. Further, rural individuals may face geographic isolation, which can exacerbate mental health conditions. Because rural areas tend to have higher percentages of older adults, it is important for rural mental health programs to tailor their services to meet their unique needs.

Older adults can face a variety of mental health challenges, including serious mental illnesses (SMIs) such as schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, and bipolar disorder. Diabetes, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, and other comorbidities associated with aging, disability, and lower physical capabilities are often linked to SMIs among older adults. Additionally, medications that treat acute or chronic physical health conditions may also cause or exacerbate mental health disorders.

Lack of transportation and limited mobility can limit access to mental healthcare among older adults. Rural mental health programs looking to support older adults may consider offering one-stop-shop services and providing all health-related services in one location. One way to do this is by incorporating an integrated care model and combining primary care and mental health services in one setting.

Another way to reduce the burden of mental illness among older adults is by promoting the use of community health workers (CHWs) and peer support specialists who can be trained to deliver mental health services. For more information on implementing a rural CHW program, see our Community Health Workers Toolkit.

In instances where family members are the primary caretaker of an older adult, rural programs may consider implementing mental health support trainings for family members. These trainings can empower family members to provide mental health support to the older individuals in their families.

For additional considerations about implementing mental health programs for older adults, see our Rural Aging in Place Toolkit.

Resources to Learn More

How to Improve Mental Health for Older Adults Living in Rural Areas
Discusses the common mental health challenges experienced by older adults in rural areas and how to best support them.
Organization(s): National Council on Aging
Date: 6/2023