Sonoma County underway with effort to boost service to aging population

Within a decade, nearly a third of Sonoma County residents will be baby boomers. That will mean a greater need for transit service, specialized affordable housing and ways for seniors to remain socially active.|

You’re not getting any younger, Sonoma County. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

People 60 or older now make up a quarter of the population as the generation of baby boomers continues to mature.

The graying generation’s share of the overall population is up from 21 percent in 2010 and far exceeds the statewide average of 18 percent.

The attributes that draw older people to the county such as wide open spaces and a small-town feel also pose potential problems for the aging demographic.

Housing is expensive and in short supply, and the lack of cohesive city centers, in Santa Rosa, for example, presents challenges for people seeking public services or attempting to escape isolation.

“One of the biggest issues has to do with connectedness,” said Diane Kaljian, the county’s Adult and Aging Services director. “Research shows isolation contributes to depression and health problems.”

With the over-60 group expected to grow to nearly 30 percent of the county’s population over the next 15 years, local officials are taking steps to make improvements for older adults. The county has launched a multiyear initiative to assess the needs of its older residents and develop solutions as part of the World Health Organization’s age-friendly city and community network.

In a contract with the Council on Aging, organizers will form a steering committee and recruit volunteers to fan out into the county’s nine cities to find out what’s most pressing.

It could result in a range of new services such as instruction about finances or use of public transportation. More innovative ideas could include establishment of volunteer driver programs and home-sharing, Kaljian said.

“We’re going to find out what little things we can do to make it better and what are the big things,” said Marrianne McBride, CEO of the Council on Aging.

Sonoma County’s older population has been steadily rising the past 10 years. Experts say it has outpaced other regions statewide as people choose to remain in the desirable area and new seniors pour in from urban centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

At the same time, younger families tend to be leaving, chasing jobs and cheaper housing. It leads to an overall aging trend. Now, 125,000 people in the county are 60 or older.

Many are able to live independently, but as they age, they face problems like getting around. Housing can be out of reach among a population in which more than 20 percent live below the poverty line.

“I think there are a lot of challenges, but what I see happening is there are a lot of creative solutions,” Kaljian said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or ?On Twitter @ppayne.

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