Professor's research aimed at better health for older Kansans
For Wichita State professor Deborah Ballard-Reisch, helping to ensure the well-being of older Kansans is a high priority. It's also the focus of a research project that Ballard-Reisch, Kansas Health Foundation Distinguished Chair in Strategic Communication, is conducting with a $19,084 research grant by the Gridley-Hoover Pilot Research Program.
Her goal for the project, titled "Promoting Health Independence: Rural Kansas Seniors & Effective Health Promotion," is to find out what older adults living in rural areas need in order to stay healthy.
The issue is becoming increasingly important because of the growing number of Kansans who are 65 or older. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2030, 20 percent of the Kansas population will be in that age group, up from 13 percent throughout the first decade of the 21st century.
Helping Ballard-Reisch with the project are Bobby Rozzell and Lisa Booth, both graduate students in the Elliott School of Communication. All three travel to communities in Elk, Chase and Wabaunsee counties — identified as areas that are lacking in health professionals — and conduct focus groups with older adults to assess their health care needs and preferences. They also conduct interviews at the local, county and state levels with service providers such as senior center directors and aging specialists.
With the information Ballard-Reisch and her student assistants gather, they will evaluate the best strategies for helping older adults in those counties know what health care services are available.
"While there is clearly a need to enhance primary care services to deal with the increasing medical issues facing adults as they age, it is also important to enhance health promotion efforts that help seniors stay healthy longer, particularly in areas where primary health care is limited or a significant distance away," said Ballard-Reisch.
There are a number of things Ballard-Reisch is hoping to find from the project, starting with what older adults are looking for to help them stay healthy.
"A lot of time and resources can be wasted if programs are developed top down and implemented because they would be 'good' for people without first assessing their interest," said Ballard-Reisch.
That's why, she said, it's important for health experts to sit down with older adults, find out their needs and then tailor programs for them.
"The process through which programs are designed and implemented can create ownership, involvement and excitement on one hand — or disinterest at best, and alienation and disenfranchisement at worst — if the interests of participants are not taken into account," she said.
Another goal for the project is to assist county service providers with sharing knowledge and coordinating services. Ballard-Reisch said many providers already do this within their county, but she's finding unique approaches to issues that can benefit the other counties as well.
She hopes eventually to coordinate a statewide conference on best practices in health promotion to rural and frontier counties that would bring together service providers from around the country to share their programs with one another.
"Creative approaches to meeting the needs of older adults will become more and more important," she said.
Ballard-Reisch also hopes the community-based model will be an example that can lead to an expanded statewide — and maybe even regional — program. That, in turn, will result in a healthier population, she said.
On a personal level, the research project is meaningful to Ballard-Reisch because she gets the chance to explore Kansas.
"When we were visiting Cottonwood Falls, we asked people what they appreciated most about living in Chase County, and one woman said she liked to sit quietly on her porch and listen as the 'Flint Hills whispered gently' to her," said Ballard-Reisch. "Having come from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which demand attention through their commanding presence, I particularly appreciated this sentiment."