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In Some States, More Than Half of Older Residents Live In Rural Areas

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Sept. 24, 2020: The maps have been updated to correct a labeling error.

More than 1 in 5 older Americans live in rural areas, many concentrated in states where more than half of their older populations are in rural areas.

A new report, The Older Population in Rural America: 2012-2016, shows that 17.5% of the rural population was 65 years and older compared to 13.8% in urban areas.

The share of the population 65 years and older in completely rural counties was the highest in the middle of the country, forming a path from North Dakota to Texas.

This report is unique because it looks at the older population by level of rurality instead of simply by metropolitan or non-metropolitan status.

According to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey (ACS) data, there were 46.2 million older people in the United States — 10.6 million of them in areas designated as rural.

This population is spread across urban and rural landscapes in ways that shape the nation at a time when graying continues as more baby boomers turn 65.

Where They Live

The mostly urban counties were fairly evenly scattered across the country with the exception of a cluster with high concentrations in Florida and along the Southwest.

The mostly rural counties with high concentrations were primarily located in the eastern half of the United States.

The share of the population 65 years and older in completely rural counties was the highest in the middle of the United States, forming a path from North Dakota to Texas.


State by State

  • Vermont and Maine had the largest percentage of older rural population, 65.3% and 62.7% respectively.

In contrast, the District of Columbia (0.0%), New Jersey (5.8%) and California (7.1%) had the smallest percentages.

  • The rural share of the older population in 33 states exceeded the national average of 22.9%. In Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Vermont and West Virginia, more than half of the older population lived in rural areas.
  • In eight states, 10% or less of the older population lived in rural areas (California, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey and Rhode Island).


There Is Old and There Is Older

Clear differences in age distributions exist between rural and urban areas.

The largest rural population shares (the tallest green bars in the figure) were apparent starting just before age 50 and continuing to around age 62. The largest shares of the urban population (the tallest purple bars) were apparent in the youngest ages and then again from ages 18 to the late 30s.

Differences nearly disappeared approaching the oldest ages (85 and older).


Gender Differences

There are many more older men relative to women in rural areas compared with urban areas.

One of the reasons is that mostly men seek rural farming and mining jobs when they’re in their 20s and 30s and many stay, aging in place. Other factors include different life expectancy for men and women and by urban/rural status, and domestic migration patterns, particularly for retired married couples.

How They Live

Aging brings change, including retirement, widowhood and health status. These changes can all influence living arrangements of the older population.

The largest share of older people in both rural and urban areas lived in households with others, although the percentage was smaller for those in urban areas (68.7%) than in rural areas (75.9%).

Individuals living alone in a household made up the next largest share, accounting for 22.3% of those in rural areas and 27.6% in urban areas.

The share of urban population 65 years and older living in skilled-nursing facilities was 3.1% compared to only 1.4% of people in rural areas. This may signal an unmet demand for skilled-nursing facility options in rural areas that will increase as baby boomers age.


Amy Symens Smith is a senior demographer focusing on sex, age and gender identity in the Census Bureau’s Special Population Statistics Area.

Edward Trevelyan is a demographer-statistician in the Foreign Born branch.


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Page Last Revised - October 28, 2021
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