Longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast brought her special brand of dark humor to Sonoma County on Wednesday, at an event that helped kick off a countywide initiative aimed at keeping local seniors healthy, active and connected.
Chast, who recently published a graphic memoir called “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” spoke of the challenges of caring for her angst-ridden parents during their final years and the role that laughter played.
When asked whether she got her humor from her mother or father, Chast said she likely got it “from observing both of them. I think that was really the only real way to kind of cope with them.”
Chast was the keynote speaker at a conference on aging held at the Green Center’s Schroeder Hall at Sonoma State University on Wednesday. The event kicked off the county’s Aging Together initiative, a long-term major health policy initiative aimed at addressing the most pressing needs of the area’s ballooning senior population.
The initiative, a project of the Human Services Department, 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. It’s a statistic that has raised concern among county officials and senior advocates, given that 41 percent of Sonoma County residents 60 or older live in poverty.
Among the other issues that will have to be addressed are the social isolation, healthy living, affordable housing and transportation. The initiative is broken down into seven “pillars” or goals. The first, which was addressed at the conference, was that of the growing isolation that plagues seniors as they age. A series of afternoon workshops addressed ways of promoting social interactions through volunteer and mentor programs, as well as ways to keep seniors engaged in the broader community.
The campaign is the result 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.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who is part of the part of the leadership team, is among key local officials championing the cause.
“Welcome to the movement,” Zane said at the start of the conference.
Zane and conference participants made it clear that creating a community environment that allows seniors to age with dignity will require input from the entire local community.
Oscar Chavez, assistant director of the county Human Services Department, said the movement will require re-examining future housing for seniors, avoiding developments like Oakmont that isolate seniors in separate communities.
“Was it really necessary to create a senior community far away from some intergenerational living?” Chavez asked.
Chavez said Sonoma County is one of the fastest aging communities in the state and has historically not put enough emphasis on the health and welfare of local seniors.
“Part of what we’re trying to do with this movement is really create a culture of wellness and a culture of interconnectedness,” Chavez said. “Because we know that when we are together as a community we all do better as a community.”