SANTA CRUZ — The so-called silver tsunami of aging adults has already arrived at Santa Cruz County’s shores, but local leaders say they’re stepping up efforts to address the escalating crisis.
The county was recently named an “age-friendly community” by the AARP , a critical step in its work to support the health and wellbeing of older residents while it continues development of a Master Plan on Aging.
“The goal of these two complimentary initiatives is to create a community that promotes healthy aging for all,” Alicia Morales, Santa Cruz County Adult and Long Term Care Division director, said during a presentation to the Board of Supervisors earlier this week. “It is an ambitious county-wide effort and cannot be just a government initiative.”
According to Morales, one-third of all county residents will be age 60 or older by 2030, which exceeds the already concerning statewide ratio projecting one out of four residents, or about 10.8 million people, to be 60 or older within the same timeframe.
This trend is especially acute in the health care industry, explained Morales, adding that about 20% of doctors in the Central Coast region are 65 and older. “With our fast-growing senior population needing greater levels of care, this presents a public health challenge,” said Morales.
The framework is centered around eight domains of livability including housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, community supports and health services, outdoor spaces and buildings and transportation. Based on its unique set of challenges, county officials have also added emergency preparedness and elder justice to round out its list to 10 priorities.
The board directed the Human Services Department to seek the age-friendly status in May, after the original request from 2019 was delayed due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The county now joins a network of more than 771 communities in 12 states, representing 100 million people including the city of Watsonville. The city of Santa Cruz is currently in the process of applying.
If the county is able to make progress on its age-friendly objectives, Clay Kempf, executive director of the Seniors Council and Area Agency on Aging in Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, says it will automatically go a long way toward achieving many of the Master Plan for Aging’s goals.
Kempf and his team have been tapped as a key county partner to develop five “bold goals” for the master plan: housing for all ages and stages, health reimagined, caregiving that works, affording aging and inclusion and equity, not isolation.
“Government can’t do this (alone), private industry can’t do this alone, nonprofits can’t do it alone. But hopefully by bringing the entire community together … will make a lot of progress towards getting there,” said Kempf, noting that the age 65 to 84 population in Santa Cruz County has grown by more than 80% in the past decade – the fastest growth rate in the state.
“The crisis is now; the need is happening right now,” he said.
Since early 2022, county leadership, in collaboration with the seniors council, the county’s four cities and the 4th and 2nd supervisor districts, have been holding quarterly Master Plan for Aging governance meetings. The group established a 10-member steering committee which is currently developing a needs assessment that will help identify local priorities including system improvements and policy initiatives.
It plans to roll out the assessment in early 2024 which will then be used to eventually establish an action plan.
“Every issue that this county has from affordable housing … to transportation to health capacity, all of them are going to become acute as a result of this shift,” said 2nd District Supervisor and Board Chair Zach Friend. “There isn’t going to be a single sector that’s not going to be touched.”
The county increased its funding to community-based organizations serving older adults and people with disabilities from $200,000 in 2019 to almost $900,000 this year, according to a county release. Additionally, the county’s most recent Collective of Results and Evidence-based investments cycle increased grant funding to serve older adults by $250,000 for a total of $1.4 million in investments.
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