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.