County aging plan could provide big boost to Sonoma Valley residents
The steadily increasing number of Sonoma Valley seniors could receive a big boost now that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and Aging Together Sonoma County are creating a Master Plan for the Aging that aligns local priorities with the state’s framework.
“Creating a collaborative plan to address the issue is a critical thing to do,” said Erick Larson, executive director of Village of Sonoma Valley and regional director of operations at Hired Hands Homecare, Inc., which serves Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties.
“I believe that it’s essential that we collaborate on a city level with the county and state governments. Nonprofit organizations can’t handle everything by themselves.”
California’s Master Plan for the Aging, released by Gov. Gavin Newsom in January 2021, affirms that the health and well-being of older Californians and people with disabilities are priorities. With many aging Baby Boomers, it was created to prepare the state for upcoming demographic changes and addresses aging, disability and equity issues.
The state plan outlines five goals for aging: to ensure housing for all ages and at all life’s stages; to re-imagine health so that people will have access to the services they need to live at home and to optimize their health and quality of life; to provide opportunities for work, volunteering engagement and leadership; to supply efficient caregiving; and to provide lifelong economic security.
“This is one of the most amazing government-created documents I’ve ever seen,” said Whitney Evans, founder of CarePartners, now one of Village of Sonoma Valley’s programs, which offers resources for seniors. “It’s a beautifully done road map.”
A boost from the county plan could significantly impact Sonoma Valley, where 21% of people are over the age of 65, a number that is growing. Both Larson and Evans say the county’s added efforts could help their organizations realize its goals.
The Village of Sonoma Valley was created in January 2022 as a curator of neighborhoods and community resource organizations aimed at improving the quality of life at all stages of aging. It is part of a statewide coalition, the Village Movement California and on a national level, the Village to Village Network.
“There has been an unprecedented movement from the state to bring funding and resources to aging programs on a county and city level,” Larson said. “But we need to connect people with programs.”
He says that although the Highway 101 corridor has plenty of services for the aging, people in more remote locations of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Valley, have some difficulty accessing them.
Central to Village of Sonoma Valley’s mission is to provide services to low- and middle-income residents as they age.
“All services have been geared to the very poor — people who make $20,000 or less per year,” Larson said. “The Village Movement of California is trying to help to address the needs of middle-income folks who can’t access the services they need.”
Larson has applied for a grant for up to $200,000 from the California Department of Education that would hire a consultant to create two-year plans for the cities of Sonoma and Santa Rosa to address the needs of older adults in their communities.
“The plans could be used as templates: Santa Rosa for urban areas and Sonoma for rural environments,” he said.
The application for the grant was supported by Sonoma Valley Hospital, La Luz Center and Meals on Wheels.
Evans has recommended that Larson also serve on the Sonoma County Master Plan on Aging Steering Committee, which will be comprised of no more than 20 members — five appointed by the Board of Supervisors, and up to 15 community members who apply to serve and are selected by the county’s Department of Human Services.
Steering Committee members will attend monthly meetings, provided guidance for their area of expertise to assist with the plan’s development and offer guidance to a consultant for gathering community input. Applications are due by Friday, April 7.
Evans is particularly hopeful that the plan will help to address the needs of the growing number of people with dementia, which affects his wife, Jeanette Evans. Drawing from his research, he estimates that 1,000 people in Sonoma Valley have dementia.
“One of California MPA’s five goals is to provide caregiving that works,” he said. “What does that tell you? The caregiver plan isn’t working. We have a critical need for them.“
Evans says that finding caregivers for people with dementia has been one of CarePartners’ major objectives. He noted that the California Master Plan on Aging estimated that over the next 10 years, the state will need more than 1 million caregivers, of which 880,000 would replace current caregivers.
“Our goal since 2019 has been to support families with caregivers, to keep people ‘aging in place,’” he said.
A 2009 survey, “Aging In Place,” by the AARP found that nearly 90% of people over age 65 in the United States want to remain in their homes and communities as they age. Finding caregivers in Sonoma Valley is especially challenging, though.
“We are so isolated here,” Larson said. “Many caregivers can’t afford to live here, and those who live in places like Fairfield and Sebastopol don’t get reimbursed for their travel, so they need to work eight-hour shifts.”
California’s In-Home Supportive Services Program provides long-term services and support for the aging, but it is available only to those eligible for Medi-Cal.
Evans hopes that one of California goals, reimagining health, will include making Sonoma Valley a dementia friendly community in which people with dementia and their caregivers are empowered, supported and included in the community, understand their rights and realize their full potential.
He’s confident that Sonoma Valley will be able to find financing to help achieve the county’s plan goals.
“I’m optimistic, whether it’s bond issue or whatever — if Sonoma Valley people can really understand what’s going on,” he said. “And what politician can say ‘no’ when this is something we need? We have a limited number of facilities here, but I think we will find financing.”
Larson feels that issues facing the aging can be successfully addressed only through collaboration of agencies and a network of volunteers — including good neighbors.
“Good neighbor volunteers are emerging, like the person who helps an aging person by taking his garbage out to be picked up,” he said. “Our only hope is to bring people together to help each other and use the resources we have for the benefit of all.”
Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at firstname.lastname@example.org.