Does Where We Live Matter To Oral Health?

Tensions Between Rural Older Adults’ Concept of Community and Health Individualism


  • Swaha Pattanaik University of Minnesota
  • April M. Schueths Georgia Southern University
  • Raymona H. Lawrence Georgia Southern University
  • Bettye Apenteng Georgia Southern University
  • Georgia Dounis University of Nevada - Las Vegas



Rural, older adults, oral health, community, self-reliance, qualitative, rural, older adults


Oral health is essential to overall health; however, structural obstacles influence older rural residents' oral health outcomes, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds in the South. Poor oral health is typically attributed to individual choices, shifting the focus from the inconspicuous community influences, making it more difficult for older rural people to obtain oral healthcare. This qualitative study explores how older adults in rural Georgia understand the community's role in shaping their oral health. Twenty-two older adults were interviewed from five rural communities in southeast Georgia. Participants defined their community in geographic terms. Community barriers and self-reliance emerged as themes of how living in a rural community affects oral health. The concepts of community and one's oral health were perceived as distinct. Participants did not see how where they lived could matter to their oral health, even when they identified critical community barriers to oral health. In collaboration with rural healthcare systems, social workers can support healthy self-reliance, moving beyond a health individualism lens, by helping bolster older adults' social supports, an essential function of social relationships that positively influences a sense of community. Additionally, social workers can advocate for equitable policies to create opportunities for rural communities to support and maintain oral health.


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