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Legally blind Santa Rosa resident Rabon Saip had to stop driving more than 30 years ago, so he is well versed in the difficulties of getting around without being able to hop into the driver’s seat of his own car.

Saip, 81, is constantly “shopping for rides,” he said. He can tap into a network of friends involved in similar activities, so someone is often able to take him where he needs to go. If nothing else, Saip uses a taxi voucher to pay for transportation.

Nonetheless, his experience highlights an obstacle frequently faced by Sonoma County residents as they enter their later years. Oftentimes, seniors’ desire to remain in their communities outlasts their ability to drive, hindering their mobility and leaving them isolated.

Sonoma County officials and advocates for seniors are doubling down on ways to make the county a better place for older residents to live and thrive.

The Board of Supervisors has declared 2017 the “Year of the Senior,” marking a concerted effort to improve services for the county’s aging population while also tapping into the economic potential of older residents, a demographic largely overlooked for too long, advocates say.

“Aging is universally experienced without regard to race, class, education, income or gender,” Saip said. “But for the most part, it’s experienced in isolation. It just happens. You quit driving. You don’t live near your family. Your family has moved away. And the isolation is something to be combated.”

Saip has long been involved with senior issues in Sonoma County, including through his current service on the advisory council to the county’s Area Agency on Aging. He wants to help change negative attitudes on aging, promoting the notion that old age is not merely “adulthood in decline,” but a different stage of life with plentiful opportunities.

Sonoma County has an estimated 125,000 residents over the age of 60, representing some 25 percent of the area’s population, according to Diane Kaljian, an assistant director of the county’s Human Services department. That figure exceeds both the state and national averages, and is expected to grow to about 28 percent by 2025, Kaljian said.

“Part of the story is that, obviously, the baby boomers are aging and staying in Sonoma County, but the other part is that some people are moving here for retirement as well. And then there’s definitely a growth in people living longer, healthier lives,” Kaljian said.

Accordingly, county officials want to focus this year on helping older adults contribute more to the economy while tailoring local communities more to their needs. It’s an area that has been essentially ignored at the federal level lately, said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the board, who formerly served as CEO of the county’s Council on Aging.

“We’ve gone through two presidential campaigns and nobody has talked about a comprehensive plan, a strategic plan, to address the needs of our growing senior population, which is a huge oversight,” Zane said.

As part of the county’s yearlong emphasis on seniors, officials are planning events such as a “good, old-fashioned picnic and hike” for older residents sometime this spring, likely at Spring Lake Regional Park, Zane said.

Additionally, the Sonoma County Economic Development Board plans to host workshops in the summer and fall about senior entrepreneurship, senior volunteering and senior-friendly businesses, according to Executive Director Ben Stone. Those workshops will help business leaders and others understand how seniors can fill valuable economic roles as employees, off-season tourists and consultants after retirement, Stone said.

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He also envisioned a conference, likely in November, that would focus on broader senior issues such as health care, services and economic trends.

Last year, the county joined a network of so-called age-friendly communities, a program affiliated internationally with the World Health Organization and AARP domestically. The designation means the county is committed to becoming as age friendly as it can, said Marrianne McBride, current president and CEO of the Council on Aging.

The process includes a full-time coordinator and an all-volunteer steering committee working with Sonoma County cities to assess their levels of age friendliness, McBride said. That includes examining, for instance, whether a city’s crosswalk signals are timed long enough for a slower-moving senior to get across the street. While making cities better for seniors, officials may also make them more livable for younger residents, McBride said.

“Millennials don’t want to have to have a car,” she said. “They want to live in close proximity to public transportation. They want to walk to restaurants and entertainment in the evening. They want a livable, walkable community, and that’s exactly what a senior’s going to want.”

One way the county is already alleviating the mobility challenges facing local seniors is by offering free transportation.

In 2008, the Sebastopol Senior Center began a program of volunteer drivers shuttling seniors to medical appointments, social events and errands. The program has given tens of thousands of free rides to west county seniors and has since been emulated in other locations, including Petaluma.

Such programs help fight isolation among seniors by encouraging them to stay as active as they can — which can benefit the rest of the community as well, said Elece Hempel, the executive director of the Petaluma People Services Center.

“Depression and loneliness and a lot of these things become these huge health deterrents and this huge expense,” Hempel said. “Somebody who’s not getting to the gym may develop diabetes because they’re sitting on the couch. Treating them for diabetes versus treating them for old age becomes much more expensive. It’s kind of this holistic view of this community that we all live in.”

By focusing more on seniors this year, McBride said she hopes the county raises awareness about the needs of seniors while also demonstrating the resource they can be.

“If you consider that 25 percent of our population are seniors, they’re typically retired, and they have a wealth of experience and knowledge that they can contribute back out in the community,” McBride said. “It’s not just a population that needs to be served. It’s a population that’s also giving back, too.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337

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