Kieran Walsh, Professor of Ageing and Public Policy and Director of the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at the National University of Ireland Galway.
Eamon O’Shea, Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre for Economic & Social Research on Dementia, at the National University of Ireland Galway.
Thomas Scharf, Professor of Social Gerontology at the Institute of Health & Society, and the Newcastle University Institute for Ageing at Newcastle University.
Currently, our understanding of social exclusion and how it affects the lives of older people in diverse rural settings is poorly developed and based primarily on anecdotal and fragmented evidence. We have little knowledge of how age, the life-course and place – individually and in combination – impact on the potential for rural-dwelling older people to experience exclusion in later life. Nor do we have insight into how older people conceptualise, react to and deal with exclusion, or how communities view advantage and disadvantage in later life. How the relationship between older people and their communities influences the experience of social exclusion in rural areas is also largely unknown (Skinner and Winterton 2017; Scharf et al. 2016). Arising from such knowledge deficits, we cannot be sure if being older and living in rural communities increases or decreases the potential for exclusion in later life, nor whether rural places are good or bad places in which to grow old.
Aim of the study
Our study (Walsh, O’Schea, Scharf, 2012) explored how age and rurality combine over the life-course to impact on the likelihood of exclusion in later life from material resources, social relations, and services in contrasting rural contexts (i.e. village rural, dispersed rural, island rural, remote rural and near-urban rural).
A qualitative approach was used to generate information on ageing in 10 different communities across Ireland and Northern Ireland (see figure 1). A community in each jurisdiction represented one of the five different kinds of rural communities: island, remote, dispersed, village and near-urban. The research involved two work strands:
- Community Consultations: A focus group was organised with community stakeholders in each of the 10 study sites. The purpose of these consultations was to gather the views of local stakeholders on ageing and social exclusion in their community. In all, 62 stakeholders from the voluntary, private and public sectors took part in these consultation events.
- Face-to-Face Interviews: The main body of work for this study involved 106 in-depth semi-structured interviews with older people across the 10 communities. The purpose of these interviews was to elicit the experiences of a diverse group of rural- dwelling older people, with a focus on exclusion, inclusion and participation. The sample included 49 men and 57 women, ranging in age from 59 to 93 years. The sample included sub-groups of older people regarded as being at particular risk of social exclusion, such as those aged 80 years and over; older people living alone; and those with a disability or a chronic ill-health condition.
Figure 1 : Map of location of case studies.
Case studies :
- Rathlin: Island with Scots-Irish heritage (32.6% of 60+)
- Inishbofin: Non-gaeltacht island – west coast(16.5% of 65+)
- Garrison: West Fermanagh village (23.9% of 60+)
- Dromid: South Kerry gaeltacht village (13.3% of 65+)
- Finnis: Down junction hamlet (21.3% of 60+)
- Coomhola Valley: West cork valley (14.7% of 65+)
- Donemana: Derry city regional community (19.8% of 60+)
- Rosemount: Central Ireland village (11.2% of 65+)
- Upperchurch: Tipperary accessible village (19.1% of 60+)
- Clough: Down accessible village (14.2% of 65+)
Domains of Social Exclusion
Social exclusion emerged as a multidimensional construct for older people in general (Walsh, Scharf, Keating, 2017) and more particularly in rural areas. From the interviews with older people, it was possible to identify five domains of social exclusion in the lives of rural-dwelling older people. These included:
- Social connections and social resources: Opportunities for social connectedness and supportive relationships.
Participants suggested that rural communities tended to offer most help in times of immediate crisis. This was particularly true when somebody from the locality died. Indeed some participants referenced well-attended funerals and the assistance given to families after bereavement as an indicator of the strength of the community:
If there’s a problem, people will come and give help, no problem…if somebody dies, you might say that all the neighbours gather around them and they’re looked after. The relatives and all. It’s just one of those things. They’d attend wakes. (Stakeholder – Donemana)
- Services: Access to health and social care, and general services and infrastructure.
Even though geographically isolated and more sparsely populated sites had a tendency to be underserved (particularly in Ireland), the relationship between place and service infrastructure was for many participants a relative one. People found ways around deficiencies in service provision, viewing weaknesses in services provision as a minor irritant that had to be overcome rather than endured.
Oh, the services are ok… And you can always go to town. If there’s an emergency or anything like that you get a helicopter… Oh there would be things that you might have to send to the mainland for alright but that’s not a problem either, [not] like it used to be… You can ring instead of going out there… And that makes a big difference. (Male participant – K03)
- Transport and mobility: Access to private transport and public rural transport schemes.
The importance of private transport as an economic and social link for older people within rural communities cannot be underestimated. In particular, the car was viewed as being indispensable in maintaining a sense of independence and social connection.
If I can’t drive it’s very awkward, you know. We’re two miles out. (Female participant – S01)
The car, however, was not only a necessity, but a symbol of independence for many participants. The association of the car with autonomy and self-sufficiency, indeed, is typical. ‘Doing things for oneself’ was highly valued among participants and the capacity to drive was critical to some people’s ability to maintain that independence.
Many of the difficulties associated with exclusion are framed in the context of a deficient public transport system. Where public transport is available in rural areas, connections are often bad, thus further augmenting feelings of remoteness from friends and family:
If you hadn’t a car, well you would use the bus, but like I can go different places in the car that I couldn’t go on a bus. Now, for instance, I go down to my sister-in-law in Portstewart…where to get a bus would mean you have to get a bus… to Derry and from Derry to Coleraine and from Coleraine out to Portstewart. (Female participant – C02)
- Safety, security and crime: Feeling safe and secure in one’s home and community.
Discussions on this topic were often initiated through discussions on the closure of local police stations. Feeling safe in one’s own home and in one’s own community was highly valued. Living in a safe environment was considered to provide both a personal and social confidence with respect to a person’s surroundings. Perceptions and experiences of safety, security and crime were often a reason for continuing to live in an area or, in extreme cases, for considering moving.
Fortunately, the vast majority of participants felt safe and secure within their own homes and in their communities. However, issues surrounding crime in the community arose among a number of participants, with one woman commenting:
Do [I] feel safe and secure living here? Yes, but not as much as I did, I think. Yeah, there’s a lot you know more talk you’d feel about break-ins and all that, you know. That I’d be warier now about doors locked and having my key where I’d be wanting to have it and if there was anything happened to get out and…you know, all that, where it never entered my head before. You never know like in the times there are. (Female participant – K03)
Despite a number of crime-related incidences reported in this study, it would be incorrect to say that a culture of fear pervaded in the communities participating in the study. Many participants in each of the sites talked about how safe they felt in their communities:
Still a great community, it’s still great and we still don’t lock our houses, we don’t lock the door, well I don’t anyway. I feel safe, very safe. (Female participant – C04)
- Income and financial resources: Having sufficient income and the capacity to budget.
Wealth and financial resources emerged as an important domain when considering age-related exclusion. A large number of participants relied solely on state contributory and non-contributory old age pensions. Having money and the capacity for consumption was essential for many aspects of life, including social connection, health, transport and access to services. People’s own expectations, past and future, in relation to living standards were critical in determining their perceptions of relative exclusion in this domain.
Mind you I’m from a generation, I mean I was born in 1937 so I’m from a generation who, although I didn’t suffer poverty, there was plenty of poverty ’round about me you see. I don’t think the younger generation are frightened of debt. I don’t think they have any fear of being in debt, but my generation you would never be in debt, you would do without rather than getting into debt, the young people nowadays they just flash the credit card. (Male participant – K06)
Older people could be excluded in one or multiple domains, or indeed not excluded in any of the domains. There are complex linkages between each of these domains that determine the nature and depth of exclusion experienced by older people living in rural communities. Thus, the different areas under each domain may represent an outcome of exclusion, or a component in a process of exclusion, e.g. lack of financial resources limiting social participation. The findings support previous work on social exclusion and ageing for non-rural settings. However, there are nuanced patterns and relationships that are particularly evident in rural settings, such as changes in rural socialisation, geographic location and distances, and weak service infrastructure.
Mediating Influences on Social Exclusion
Reflecting the complexity of individual lives in rural communities, the interviews with older people demonstrated that there are particular overlapping and interconnecting factors that influence whether a person is more or less likely to be excluded across the various domains. It is how these factors combine and interconnect in an older person’s life that shapes the potential for older people to be excluded in their rural communities. These factors, which stem from individual and rural diversity, include:
- Individual capacities: Personal agency and sense of independence; coping and adaptive capacity; and the ability for risk management.
Some individuals appeared to be more aware of their life-course and personal context, and as a consequence were accepting, but not in a fatalistic way, of their future life trajectories. In essence, although a number of people acknowledged that life was far from perfect, there was a palpable sense of contentment with life and recognition of the importance of living in and for the present moment. This is illustrated by one older man who reflected on his life in his rural community:
You were better off to be struggling away with life… Well, ’tis my life. ’Tis, quite natural to me. So far, thank God, I’ve my own boss [wife]… Well now, I have ould angina and I don’t know what road that’s going to take. But yerrah, I have various old thing-a-majigs, but I takes no notice of them. I’m managing away. There’s nothing serious and… I know that we have problems and various things but, I don’t live thinking like that, unless ’tis happening [laughs]. (Male participant – K10)
- Life-course trajectories: Life-course transitions and trajectories including bereavement; health and functional independence (also related to having to stop driving); and ageing.
Examining the experiences of the participants pointed to the importance of the life-course in understanding cumulative disadvantage and exclusion. Moreover, events within an individual’s life-course, and in particular the transitions that a person experienced, had a strong influence over their exclusion or inclusion, both in the past and in later life. While recognising that such life experiences can help to develop resilience and an adaptive ability in the long term, major life events can also impact negatively on psychological and physical well-being in later life and a person’s capacity to remain included in society.
Some participants, typically older women, spoke about the death of a child. For these interviewees there was a clear sense of loss and psychological longing. There appeared to be an emotional void within their lives that impacted on their long term sense of well-being and, to an extent, on their sense of purpose in life. These feelings were certainly intensified for those who had lost more than one child:
I do miss my daughter. I’ll always miss my daughter. No matter what the world says, I’ll always think of poor [daughter’s name]. [Son’s name] I don’t think too much of, he was only 11 months. But I know his death when he died at 11 months was a big shock to me. And of course my first child was my very first, and you’re so looking forward to your first baby. To find that it had died at birth, that’s not a very pleasant thing to happen. So what can you do? Life is hard. (Female participant – K02)
- Place and community characteristics: Geographic and natural elements; people in the community and community cohesion; and attachment and belonging.
Place, as an embodiment of a geographic location and a community of people, was a pervasive dimension of the lived experiences of interviewees. People generally liked where they were living and had strong attachments to people and places. These attachments could help mitigate or compensate for some of the dimensions of exclusion.
For some participants, the influx of new residents was considered to impact on community connectedness. Although these individuals were technically living in the area, they were not always well known and remained outside the traditional community structures. In some cases people stated that new residents typically did not get involved in the community. In other cases, however, interviewees recognised that new residents can sometimes invigorate a community, but can also dilute the cohesive elements of a place. This was thought to be particularly true in smaller areas:
…it was like a very close community. Perhaps now with a lot of extra new people, of course it’s not as close…it’s good that they come in because you need them to come in, and it’s good because it broadens the community a little bit and it brings new ideas and things. But it loses that closeness, that friendliness, it definitely does. (Female participant – C04)
A number of older farmers spoke about the land that surrounded their homestead and that they worked all their lives. From their descriptions of farming or tending the livestock, it was clear that for them there was a contentment and emotional comfort in still being around and involved in the land. This was underlined by an attachment to the nature of work and a sense of pride in achieving a livelihood from farming. It was also evident that for a number of participants there was a therapeutic benefit to this way of life:
If I was there now of a Sunday I’d go home from mass and I’d have things done and…I’d go off through the fields. I could travel, God I could walk miles down through everyone’s nice fields you know and places that you were when you were a gossan [boy]… If you just go out on the field and a cow is after having a calf and you see him racing around the field and everything good. It’s, it’s a great lift to anyone. (Male participant – A04)
- Macro-economic forces: Emigration and migration; changing economic production within rural areas; depletion of social services and social meeting points; and the impact of the economic recession on communities and their residents.
The macro-economic forces can be summarized in the long term decline of industry. In Ireland, in 1926, primary sector counts for 32% of GDP and 54% of employment (Haughton, 2000) ; in 1973 fo 18% of GDP and 25% of employment ; and in 2009, for 2.4% of GDP and 5% of employment (Hynes and Hennessy, 2012; Kearney, 2010). How is such a factual reality translated in lived experienced?
It was clear from the interviews with older participants that the macro-economic context at the jurisdictional level influenced the potential for age-related exclusion in rural communities. These macro-level factors, which in many cases reflect broader global trends and patterns, shape the context of the case-study sites themselves at the meso-level, and in turn impact on the lives of older people at the micro-level.
The most influential macro-level factors concerned changes in the economic structure of rural areas, most notably the declining importance of agriculture and the increasing importance of towns and cities to the economic well-being of all citizens. The majority of older participants were aware of how broad economic and social trends were affecting rural places and the residents who lived in those places.
See farming changed completely. Is one of the things, that there’s very, very few full-time farmers so, as a result, the place is nearly empty by day d’ya know. There’s very few except the slow fellas like myself knocking around. (Male participant – E07)
Interviewees from several sites highlighted the rising rates of unemployment in their communities. These participants felt that job losses, particularly for those who worked in the construction sector, were damaging the fabric of rural communities. People described how emigration was affecting local organisations and community groups. In addition, people were conscious of the fact that not only would the population fall in number but that the community would lose some of its vibrancy and cohesion:
Oh God. One thing was if we could see this recession lift a bit is one of the things… It’s impacting on the [GAA] club, it’s impacting on the population because people now with the qualifications are having to leave. (Male participant – E02)
The findings confirmed the existence of key domains of exclusion for older people in rural Ireland and Northern Ireland. Aside from developing a cross-border understanding of age-related rural social exclusion, this is an important contribution to the international literature because of the limited empirical and conceptual work on rurality and exclusion among older people. More importantly though, the research has demonstrated the influence of mediating factors, surrounding individual and rural diversity, on the exclusionary experiences of rural-dwelling older people across the various domains of exclusion. This represents an original contribution to international knowledge on rural ageing, which helps to enhance the explanatory power of domain-based exclusionary frameworks. In conclusion, age-related rural social exclusion emerged as both multidimensional, in terms of domains, and multi-layered, in terms of the relationship between potential mediating influences and domains.
Today, these knowledge takes part in a broader exploration of various factors, domains and mediators of social exclusion and old age (Walsh, Scharf, Keating, 2017). Today, through the EU COST ROSEnet network (http://rosenetcost.com/), European researchers and stakeholders explore those relations into five domains: economic exclusion, social relations exclusion, services exclusion, civic exclusion and community and spatial exclusion.
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Walsh, K., Scharf, T., & Keating, N. (2017). Social exclusion of older persons: a scoping review and conceptual framework. European Journal of Ageing, 14(1), 81–98. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10433-016-0398-8
Walsh, K., O Shea, E., Scharf, T. (2012) Social Exclusion and Ageing in Diverse Rural Communities: Findings from a cross-border study in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Irish Centre for Social Gerontology.
 This paper is inspired by our collective study. The complete study is available here : https://aran.library.nuigalway.ie/handle/10379/3254