Sonoma County residents 60 and older now 28% of population

Sonoma County’s population of adults 60 and older has ballooned to 136,987 residents, or 28%, making it the second “oldest” county in the Bay Area, according to 2020 U.S. census data released this week.|

Sonoma County’s population of adults 60 and older has ballooned to 136,987 residents, or 28%, making it the second “oldest” county in the Bay Area, according to 2020 U.S. census data released this week.

Of the nine counties in the Bay Area, only Marin has a larger share of residents who are 60 and older, at 29.6%. With Napa at 27%, older residents are becoming one of the most prominent age cohorts of the North Bay.

The county’s rapidly aging population will undoubtedly pose significant challenges to the local health care system and county social services, aspects of which are geared toward a much younger population.

“We are ill prepared for the aging of the nation, and it’s already showing here in our community,” said Shirlee Zane, a former Sonoma County supervisor and longtime senior advocate.

Zane said local challenges include providing sufficient and appropriate health care services, adapting transportation systems to address reduced mobility, and providing more recreation opportunities for seniors.

The population data released this week is part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 census count and the first at released since 2021. It includes population counts by age, sex, race, ethnicity and homeownership.

The age category of 60 and older is significant in that it includes the youngest of the aging Baby Boomers, who turn 60 next year. Zane said one challenge is found among Boomers, many of whom are “in denial of the fact that they’re aging.”

The data also show that the rate at which Sonoma County is aging exceeds that of the state and nation.

More than two decades ago, the number of Sonoma County residents 60 and older was 74,614, or 16.3% of the population, according to the 2000 Census. A decade later, for the 2010 Census, that number grew to 99,553 residents, or 20.6%.

By 2020, that age group reached 136,987 residents, an 84% growth over the past two decades.

The share of the county’s white population, with a median age of 52.6, that is 60 and older is now nearly 39%. Only 10% of Latino residents in Sonoma County are 60 and older.

The median age for Latino residents in the county is 29.6, while the median age for Native American, Black and Asian residents is 34.1, 35.9 and 41, respectively.

Such a rapidly aging population has the potential to severely burden local health care systems, said Dr. Charlotte Carlson, a geriatrician with Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation.

Carlson founded Grove at Sutter, a geriatric primary care clinic operated by Sutter in Santa Rosa and San Mateo. Carlson, who created and led the Santa Rosa clinic when it was still a pilot, said the modern health care model caters toward a much younger population.

“We used to talk about it in medical school, the 40-year-old man is the norm,” she said. “It turns out the normal person in the health system is now somebody in their 70s and 80s. And yet our system has not transformed to that person yet.”

Grove by Sutter, located on Summerfield Road in East Santa Rosa, offers a team-based model of care that includes a physician, an advanced nurse or nurse practitioner, a social worker and a medical care coordinator. The clinic is an alternative to the rapid, assembly line model of medical care that yields only “15 minutes“ with a doctor, she said.

Some older residents face a chronic illnesses and are prescribed up to 20 medications from different physicians, Carlson said.

Paul Dunaway, director of the county’s adult and aging division of the Human Services Department, said the county has embarked on a multiyear effort to develop a local Strategic Aging Plan that will align with the state’s 2021 Master Plan for Aging.

Dunaway said creating more appropriate housing for seniors and modifying health care systems are among the key goals of the local master plan. Other goals, he said, include creating more flexible transportation options and expanding bus and transit stops that are “age and disability friendly.”

“There are very few housing programs targeted just for the older adult population,” he said. “Even our assessment tools are geared toward chronic homelessness and don’t prioritize the aging population.”

But Dunaway, who helped spearhead the local aging plan, also said he hopes to the next few years will see a change in the mindset change around aging.

“Aging isn’t something to fear but to revere,” Dunaway said. “Aging is something to celebrate. We have people in our community now that are more experienced, knowledgeable and come with more wisdom.”

Dunaway said the “westernized way of thinking of independence has swung too far.”

Dr. Wynnelena Canio, a geriatrician and psychiatrist for Kaiser Permanente, said more consideration needs to go into “all the interactions” of so many medications.

“As we are usually physicians and not geriatricians, our focus is on treating diseases one by one,” Canio said, adding that when clinical trials for various medications likely “excluded a lot of these multi-complexity, multi-morbidities that we’re having to see in people as we get older.”

Canio, who is on the local steering committee for the county’s Master Plan for Aging, a blueprint for addressing the state’s rapidly changing demographics, said there are roughly 800 board certified geriatricians in California and 7,000 in the nation.

Canio said one geriatrician is able to adequately care for only about 800 seniors. Sonoma County, she said, probably has less than 10 geriatricians.

“How can I serve more people knowing that there's not enough of us,” Canio said, adding that one solution is providing more training to primary care doctors so they can more easily and confidently identify geriatric syndromes.

Giving primary care doctors the “basic tools” to care for older adults with fewer medical needs will give geriatricians the time needed to care for seniors with more complex medical needs, she said.

Canio helped set up geriatric evaluation and management clinics for Kaiser Permanente in San Rafael and Santa Rosa for people with conditions that may be difficult for primary care physicians to address, such as elder frailty and dementia.

She said Kaiser also has a primary care program for homebound seniors in both Petaluma and Marin County. “People that are homebound can no longer go to their primary care physician,” she said. “So, we have a few doctors who will go to the home and provide the care at home.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

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