Elected leaders set the stage last week for making Sonoma County a national model for how to care for and interact with its aging population.
This is certainly fertile ground for such a bold initiative. Roughly one in five residents in Sonoma County is over age 60. With baby boomers reaching retirement age, that’s expected to climb to one in four within 15 years. According to the most recent census data, Sonoma County’s population of those 65 and older has grown at three times the rate of the total county population. But making this initiative, Aging Together Sonoma County, a success won’t be easy.
When the topic of seniors is raised, many tend to think of retirement communities such as Oakmont. But that’s more the exception than the norm.
Some of the greatest challenges facing Sonoma County seniors include:
Poverty. More than four out of 10 Sonoma County residents 60 and older live in poverty, according to Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a former executive director of the local Council on Aging and a leader of this initiative.
Housing. With rents having increased an estimated 30 percent in the past three years, median home prices now exceeding $500,000 in the county and few new housing projects in the pipeline, it will be a challenge in the years ahead to find stable, affordable places for seniors to live.
Isolation. Among those who do have a place to call their own, many suffer from a sense of disconnection. According to the U.S. Census, 28 percent of people over 65 live alone. Meanwhile, a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in older adults.
Transportation. Many choose to live in Sonoma County for its rural beauty and lack of urban density. But as one ages, the reality of the limitations of our transportation systems becomes evident. Seniors often are wary of giving up driving, even when they should, for fear of losing their primary connection with the community and sometimes friends and family.
Healthy living. Studies show that seniors who feel lonely and isolated also are more likely to report having poor physical and/or mental health. Isolated seniors also are vulnerable to elder abuse, a growing problem in Sonoma County.
Perhaps the biggest concern is how to address these growing needs at a time when government funding for such programs is in short supply. Aging Together Sonoma County seeks to confront these issues through an interwoven system of nonprofits and volunteer activities. Building such partnerships and a sense of community involvement is the right approach.
As Marrianne McBride, president and CEO of the nonprofit Council on Aging, said, the goal is a “total culture change here around aging.”
And that change needs to happen in every neighborhood and on every block. But before it can begin offering a new environment for seniors, Sonoma County first needs to do a better job of valuing what seniors have to offer. Other solutions will be more evident after that.