The County of Santa Clara and its 15 constituent cities have made a firm, ongoing commitment to making life as friendly as possible for older people.
Good thing, too. Like most places on the planet, Santa Clara County stands on the cusp of an unprecedented wave of people entering the latter stages of their lives. By 2030, 25 percent of Santa Clara County residents will be over 60. That compares with 17 percent in 2016. The County and cities are getting ready to absorb this huge bubble of people, like a snake swallowing an egg.
The County’s Aging and Adult Services Department spearheaded a drive to get all the jurisdictions on board. Those efforts paid off recently. The World Health Organization (WHO) designated Santa Clara to be the first U.S. county to be age-friendly through and through.
WHO’s Age-Friendly Cities Network now includes about 700 communities in almost 40 countries. Membership allows them to collaborate and to access technical help. But communities that falter in their commitment will lose their WHO status.
As arduous as it was for Diana Miller, the project manager who drove the effort, the real work starts now, says James Ramoni, director of the County Aging and Adult Services Department. The cities and the County now will get busy on the three-year process of implementing their plans under the oversight of the WHO.
What does ‘age-friendly’ mean?
The designation of age-friendly doesn’t mean the County and its cities have already created a Shangri-La for seniors.
“What it means,” says James Goodwin, a leader in the age-friendly movement and a recent guest on KQED radio’s public affairs program “Forum,” “is that it’s recognizing the fundamental changes that are going on in society at the moment.”
It’s not only about the sheer numbers of older people, but also about swelling number who will approach 100 years old.
As people age, of course, their needs change dramatically.
Perhaps they can no longer drive safely. How will they get around?
The home where they raised children is now too big to maintain. Maybe they can’t use the stairs anymore. But the idea of moving might be more daunting than the prospect of staying.
Or maybe they live alone now — with or without help from family or other caregivers. They may become susceptible to boredom, loneliness, depression and dementia.
Maybe the neighborhood sidewalks, once easily negotiated even if they were cracked, now make them fear even going out for a little exercise lest they fall.
So the challenge will be for local governments to set appropriate policies and services that help older people and their partners combat these problems and many more. There is also the challenge and opportunity to connect the generations, both for the elders’ health and happiness and for the rest of society to take advantage of their lifetimes of experience and perspective.
Of course, these aren’t new challenges aren’t new. But Santa Clara County is ready to act.
More of the same?
To be fair, it’s not as if governments have been sitting on their hands. There are many age-friendly programs already. They’ve built senior centers and enforced wheelchair ramp requirements in public accommodations, for example.
They’ve also funded and coordinated all sorts of nonprofits, such as Meals on Wheels. In Santa Clara County’s West Valley, for example, Supervisor Joe Simitian facilitated, along with several cities, the development of a volunteer-driven program called RYDE, or reach Your Destination Easily. RYDE allows older people who no longer can or no longer want to drive to call and make an appointment for a low-cost lift to the doctor, to shop, or to see a friend.
In addition, the County and the City of San Jose’s Happy Hollow Park and Zoo open the park an hour early for older people one day each month in the sunny season. They socialize, get a bit of exercise, ride the roller coaster and engage in art activities. Park officials say it’s growing in popularity as word spreads.
“And it’s all for free, so it really helps the half of older adults in the county who have a hard time making ends meet,” Miller says.
But the needs of older people are often not being met, at least in some places, and the gap is sure to grow unless governments get busy figuring out how to manage them at scale.
Now the work begins under the watchful eye of the World Health Organization. The County of Santa Clara is eager to get started with all 15 city partners. So are the dozens of service organizations that support the older population. Led by the county, they are already meeting every quarter.
“This county is one of the larger counties in the state,” says Ramoni. “And we’re really setting a tone and a trend, not only for the rest of the state but the rest of the country.”
For more information:
- Age-Friendly Silicon Valley: agefriendlysiliconvalley.org/
- Podcast of Santa Clara County seniors’ agenda project manager Diana Miller and James Goodwin, head of research at Age UK and a global leader in the age-friendly movement, in an interview on KQED radio’s “Forum” program.
- A look at the older population in Santa Clara County: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/ssa/daas/Documents/SA%202017%20Fact%20Sheet%201%20Demographics.pdf
- Santa Clara County of Department of Aging and Adult Services: sccgov.org/sites/ssa/daas/Pages/daas.aspx