Caring for an Aging Population

Written by Theresa-Marie Wilson

Theresa-Maria Wilson has been a journalist covering the North Coast and South County area for over 20 years. She is also the founder of Cat Noir CC and is currently working on a novel.

May 4, 2022

 A new report looks at the county’s ability to care for its aging population. Photo submitted

A new report says the county is unprepared to meet the needs of its aging population.

“High-Value Opportunities for Improving the Lives of SLO County’s Older Adults” was released in April and can be found at slocountyseniors.org. The report was initiated by Jimmy Paulding, current Arroyo Grande City Councilman and candidate for 4th District County Supervisor.

“SLO County’s fastest-growing population segment is 65 and older,” Paulding said in a news release.“These are the people who helped make our region such a great place to work and live. But the services, housing and care they need to preserve a good quality of life are severely limited.

My objective was to set the stage for us to help our older adult population, those who care about them, and those who care for them.”

More than 20% of the county population is now 65 or older; by 2030, a projected 25.3% of county residents will be in that age range, according to a regional growth forecast. Residents aged 55 and above are the largest population group in the county at 37%. An estimated 22% of that group are at risk of becoming “elder orphans,” who have no spouse, partner, children or other person on whom they can depend for assistance. Further, the lack of affordable housing options for seniors leads directly to the rising number of people experiencing homelessness. According to a 2020 UC San Francisco study, persons aged 50 and over now account for “half of unhoused adults in California – a four-fold increase since 1990 when 11% of homeless adults were over 50. However, the services, housing, care, and other resources essential for older adults’ quality of life are limited and scattered in in SLO County.

The 14-page report was prepared by an “informal working group” made up of Linda Beck, a lawyer and patient advocate, principal of Nipomo-based Square One Elder and Health Advocacy; Alexandra Morris, a certified professional geriatric care   manager; Anne Wyatt, executive director of SmartShare Housing Solutions and board member of the County Area Agency for Aging. 

“The numbers are staggering,” Wyatt told Estero Bay News, “with the combination of increasing absolute numbers of older seniors, the number of elder orphans and increasing number of seniors that will not have significant savings or pensions to rely on and will be largely reliant on minimum social security payments. A better understanding of these challenges ahead and action now on a the variety of fronts addressed in the report and some vital activities not discussed in the report, such as physical and mental health care, will be essential.”

Although many of the issues require action at the state or national level, the group did pinpoint area-specific work that could be done.

Local Action Priorities Identified

• Increase awareness of existing services for older adults.

• Expand care management and adult day programs.

• Increase housing options for seniors at every economic level.

• Connect older adults through technology.

• Assist older adults with transportation.

Some of the priorities seem fairly easy to put into action, such as outreach and expanding education, but others, including housing and adult care programs, require collective involvement and financing. Getting the necessary engagement across the county while keeping the report’s findings at the forefront of planning and management could prove difficult.

“It’s tough sometimes to make seniors and senior issues sexy,” said Wyatt, “particularly when a high percentage of seniors with the highest level of need feel embarrassed for their difficult circumstance—like they have failed and will be judged—or have limited mobility and struggle to interact and feel largely invisible, either by choice or societal reality. As I’m watching aging, I’m thinking it’s a lot about compromise and settling, which we tend to equate with failure much of the time.”

The report was created to promote dialogue about the opportunities and challenges as well as to help people understand them. The group hopes to next schedule discussions with the senior serving community and existing senior provider groups, such as the Adult Services Policy Council (ASPC) and the Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens. The goal would be to lay the groundwork for effective partnership and sharing of resources while determining to what extent services are missing versus those that might only need more information in the hands of the senior population at large. 

The aging population across the state is creating a demographic shift that must be adapted to. There are few problems that are locally specific 

“SLO County,” Wyatt said, “has a few particular challenges conspiring against senior service provision for lower income seniors, in particular, yet affecting seniors in all income brackets: extremely high housing cost; low vacancy rates; the rural nature of the County means significant travel distances from homes to services or, conversely, for service providers to get to the homes of seniors.”

As an example Wyatt noted Cambria, where getting home health and assistance providers into the homes can be virtually impossible because the workers cannot afford to live in the area in which they work and have to choose work closer to their communities, saving commute time and gas costs.

If the needs of the aging population are not met, the reality is a grim one.

“We can expect to feel our hearts ache more frequently as we look away from weary seniors sleeping or panhandling on the streets, and the added ache from the shared sense of failure,” Wyatt said. “On the flip side, we may not see them, yet we may know that a host of our former shop clerks and delivery persons, gardeners and table servers, among others, are isolated treading water, as they become further detached from the fabric of the community.”

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