Sonoma County officials are launching a major health policy initiative aimed at addressing the most pressing needs of the area’s ballooning senior population, including social isolation, healthy living, affordable housing, transportation and poverty.
The initiative, called Aging Together Sonoma County, is a response to the rapid population growth of those 60 and older, driven largely by aging baby boomers. That group, currently 20 percent, will become a quarter of the county’s total population by 2030.
That number is cause for concern, given that 41 percent of Sonoma County residents 60 or older live in poverty, said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a key local official spearheading the initiative.
Zane said the goal is to forge “a long-term vision” of how the local community is going to age, one that not only creates supportive programs but also transforms the way seniors are viewed and valued.
“We want to really be a leader in the country on this,” Zane said.
The Aging Together initiative will officially launch Wednesday with an event in the Green Music Center’s Schroeder Hall at Sonoma State University.
The event will feature a keynote talk by longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, whose award-winning graphic memoir, "Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant," takes a humorous and poignant look at caring for aging parents.
The kickoff will focus on the first of seven goals in the initiative: creating greater opportunities for seniors to avoid the isolation that often plagues elderly people in the United States. Proposals include bolstering volunteer and other civic engagement opportunities for seniors.
One possibility, Zane said, is bridging both the age and cultural gap between the county’s aging white population and its younger Latino sector. That could involve mentoring programs that benefit young Latino students, she said.
The overall initiative is the product of a partnership assembled by the county Department of Health Services in 2014 called the Sonoma County Healthy Aging Collaborative. The team was selected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of 29 groups across the country to participate in a leadership development program of the National Leadership Academy for the Public’s Health. Zane is a part of the leadership team.
The local partnership, which includes county health officials and leaders of key nonprofit organizations, zeroed in on healthy living for seniors. That focus goes hand-in-hand with Sonoma County’s stated goal of becoming the healthiest county in California by 2020, said Diane Kaljian, director of Adult and Aging Services for the county.
By that time, an estimated 40 percent of county residents will be 50 or older.
Marrianne McBride, president and CEO of the nonprofit Council on Aging, said that beyond improving services for seniors, real change requires a fundamental shift in how the community views older residents and aging.
“We really hope there will be a total culture change here around aging,” McBride said.
Kaljian and McBride are members of the leadership team. Others include Ellen Bauer, director of the county Public Health Division; Oscar Chavez, assistant director of the county Human Services Department; and Dr. Mary Maddux-Gonzalez, a former county public health officer who now is medical director for the Redwood Community Health Coalition.
In the long run, the Aging Together initiative hopes to tackle a slew of difficult issues surrounding seniors. Its long-term goals or “pillars” include: