Sonoma’s Council on Aging celebrates 50 years helping seniors

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When the Sonoma County Council on Aging first launched back in 1966, young baby boomers at the time had no idea what the organization would be capable of doing for them in 50 years.

In 1965, the United States Congress passed the Older Americans Act, created to assist communities in supporting their seniors. Federal funding was made available for counties and nonprofits to provide services to the elderly such as meals-on-wheels programs, in-home services, legal aid, abuse prevention and more. From there, the Council on Aging (COA) was born.

To receive such funding, the county contracts with the Council on Aging to provide certain services, but the nonprofit goes above and beyond that, says COA president Marrianne McBride. The council specializes in four areas of services: social, financial, legal and nutrition. All four departments and their sub-departments, combine to make a total of 16 services.

And yet, despite having served county residents for 50 years, many Sonoma residents are unaware of all the Council on Aging has to offer.

“We are funded to offer Meals on Wheels, dining sites throughout the county, basic case management and also day programs,” says McBride. “Those programs are available to anyone. Their ability to pay or not has nothing to do with it.”

Other programs are fee-based or funded by grants. According to its website, the Council on Aging receives 20 percent of its funding from its fee-based programs, 37 percent from donations and 43 percent from the government.

With this funding, it is able to deliver 285,000 meals a year to people’s homes for free. In addition to this, it hosts dining sites. Combined it serves a total of 550,000 meals a year. In the Sonoma Valley alone, the COA caters to 87 seniors with Meals on Wheels and offers dinners at Vintage House – where seniors in Sonoma can dine through COA on Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon, and attend a popular weekly senior social club.

“We are also funded for short-term case management,” said McBride. “What that means is any person over the age of 60, or their family members, can call us. We’ll go into the home, sit and talk, assess their current living situation, put together a care plan and connect them with resources that will make life easier at this point.”

Each year they work with about more than 6,000 seniors across all of the programs. Since July 2015, Council on Aging representatives have met with 5,371 clients for case management, according to McBride. COA currently helps 41 seniors with case management in Sonoma.

The COA’s social programs, where seniors can hang out together, are popular as well.

“They’re seniors who may have someone helping take care of them,” said McBride. “(Through the social programs) they have entertainment, do arts and crafts, socialize, have gentle exercises and eat lunch. Meanwhile the person taking care of them has time for themselves, too.”

Margaret Gilbaugh, 88, has attended the Sonoma Valley senior social club twice a week for five years. Robin Nicola, Gilbaugh’s daughter, takes care of her while also battling cancer.

“She lives at home with me so it’s very helpful for my mother to get out of the house and interact with other people, eat with other people and sing songs,” said Nicola. “When she doesn’t get out of here, she’s stuck in the house.”

Added Nicola: “It really is a great program and we’re really grateful to have her in it. We are thrilled she can go and looks forward to it.”

Other programs include help for seniors that are victims of domestic violence; coordinated care to help elders living alone; and mental health programs for seniors struggling with mental illnesses. The financial programs run the gamot from helping with daily finances to acting as a trustee or conservator for them if they lose capacity. The COA is currently a trustee for 140 seniors, with six active clients in Sonoma.  

In the legal department, the Council on Aging focuses on estate planning with two attorneys who handle trusts, wills, advanced healthcare directives and powers of attorney – and they do it for a lower cost than a typical law firm in Sonoma County, according to McBride.

In the nutrition division COA focuses on food services and senior health. The “Senior Games,” an annual competition in June for people 50 years or older to compete in 18 events, is one way they promote senior health.    

“We wanted to bring that to Sonoma County and create a different culture around aging, change the conversation and really encourage people to celebrate their aging process,” McBride said. “[I] hope to one day effect a positive change around ageism. The most important thing is quality of life for our aging community.”

McBride believes many people in Sonoma don’t know about the Council on Aging because they don’t want to think about growing old. Her recommendation is to be informed about the organization before you need it.

McBride encourages people to volunteer, mainly with the social clubs and Meals on Wheels. Locals wishing to socialize with seniors can contact the Sonoma social club supervisor Laurel Anderson at 525-0143 ext. 103.

“We’re looking for people who want to talk to our seniors,” said Anderson. “Also looking for volunteer musicians to come and peform for our seniors. People are afraid to volunteer because they’re not professional enough, but really it’s all about their energy.”

Added Anderson: “As a community, we help people age. No one should age in isolation.”

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