Just finding a ride to a doctor’s appointment is a big challenge for many seniors in rural and semi-rural areas.

They often don’t drive and have limited money to pay for transportation but still need to get to regular doctor appointments. “You might be 40 or 50 miles from the local hospital and need to get blood work weekly,” said Mary Weiss, director of research and resident programs for Preservation Management, Inc. (PMI).

Weiss spends much of her time helping residents access the services they need, including transportation when necessary. PMI, based in South Portland, Maine, manages and coordinates services for residents in more than 5,000 affordable apartments, including many rural seniors properties.

Seniors housing managers often can’t afford to provide services like transportation themselves, especially at small, isolated projects. As a result, communities often rely on partnerships with local organizations to bring services to their residents, according to seniors developers like Mercy Housing, based in Denver.

Finding groups to partner with can be more difficult at the smallest, most isolated projects, some of which lack even basic community space, said Weiss.

PMI goes the distance

For PMI, the challenge begins with hiring staff and helping them communicate with each other. Many rural seniors communities have less than 24 apartments and can only afford to bring a service coordinator to the site once a week for a few hours. That service coordinator will often have to drive up to 50 miles just to get to the project, said Weiss.

To keep these professionals from moving on to other jobs, PMI pays them for the time spent traveling and does its best to assign its employees to work enough hours at different projects to allow them to qualify as full-time workers with benefits.

PMI also encourages its staff to share information. If some residents at a property are working with social workers, that property’s service coordinator might never meet them in person, because the service coordinators and social workers rarely visit the property on the same days. In that case, it’s important the two helpers speak regularly by phone, said Weiss.

Weiss also encourages her service coordinators to reach out to a property’s maintenance workers, who may also be aware of how residents are doing and which residents need help.

“They are your eyes and ears,” said Weiss.

Once PMI’s service coordinators have identified the residents’ needs, they scour the areas around their properties to find local agencies, churches, and nonprofits that are close enough to provide services like transportation, health care, and nutrition programs to help fill those needs. Veterans groups are especially helpful, said Weiss.

Weiss advises her service coordinators to build enough time into their schedules to find these providers. “You’re going to spend a disproportionate amount of your time networking,” she said.

Some of the older properties PMI works with lack community space to put on educational programs or community events. Short of a renovation, these properties have limited options for group or community activities, but volunteerism can sometimes help give them options for interaction. Weiss convinced the local fire department to build picnic benches at one property to provide some common space for residents to interact. Other communities have created outdoor gardens for activities.

Town provides options

The closer a property is to service providers and the more community space it has, the more it can provide.

Mercy Village, an affordable independent-living property in Joplin, Mo., is located just a block away from St. John’s Hospital, which provides residents with health and wellness services through its Prestige Exercise Program. The hospital also provided some community programming when its choir visited Mercy Village to put on a Christmas concert for residents. The town, with a population of about 47,000, provides transportation through its subsidized van service. Mercy Village is also close to a seniors center run by the YMCA.

The 66-unit property includes several thousand square feet of community space, including a community room with a full kitchen, a computer room, a craft room, a TV lounge, and numerous smaller lounges scattered throughout the building. Mercy Village even has a vegetable patch where residents can garden.

The development also offers its residents the opportunity to give back by linking them with opportunities to volunteer at the hospital or in the seniors center.

“To be useful and to be needed is one of the things that my residents really plug into,” said Sherryl Weeks, a property manager for Mercy Housing, which owns and operates Mercy Village.

CHEER brings its own services to seniors

Other rural seniors housing developers provide services to residents through their own social service arms. The seniors at 1000 Clark Drive in Georgetown, Del., have access to an abundance of services, from fitness programs to special events. That’s because the main mission of the property’s nonprofit owner is to provide services to seniors in rural Sussex County.

Set on the outskirts of Georgetown, a town of less than 5,000, the 60-unit independent-living community is surrounded on three sides by farm fields.

But its fourth side sits next door to a 24,000-square-foot seniors center that serves the whole town. The facility has a fitness room, a café, a hair salon, and a banquet hall for special occasions.

CHEER, the nonprofit that owns and operates 1000 Clark Drive, operates seven activity centers for seniors throughout Sussex County and provides services ranging from transportation to meals and personal care, paid for through grants from foundations and government programs.