Santa Clara County is aging fast, but resources for elders remain scarce

Elders are projected to make up nearly a quarter of Santa Clara County’s population by 2046.

With that growing number of older adults, county lawmakers say a focus on elder abuse, housing, transportation, social participation and safety needs to grow, too. Those issues were discussed during a special meeting by Santa Clara County’s Children, Seniors and Families Committee last week.

County Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Dave Cortese joined a full dais of county leaders to review a dozen expert reports and 30 public testimonies about what’s been done — and what still needs to happen. The county is the first in the nation to receive the designation of “age-friendly” from the World Health Organization after all its cities adopted certain requirements, but officials say there is still more work to do.

Paul Greenwood, a retired district attorney who prosecuted elder abuse cases since 1996, focused the discussion on elder abuse, frauds and scams.

According to Greenwood, there is only one adult protective services worker for every five child protective services workers in many counties. There are only 31 adult protective workers in Santa Clara County, and that lack of resources is a problem as the rates of sexual abuse and spam “robo calls” targeting elderly residents continue to rise.

If nothing is done, the staff shortage, paired with the expected increase of the elder population in the next 15 years, could create an “avalanche of elder abuse cases that would never get reported nor investigated,” Greenwood added.

Sheri Burns, chair of the aging services collaborative in Santa Clara County, said there’s also a lack of awareness, opportunities and access for older adults to engage in volunteerism and inclusion. “Studies have shown that social isolation has the same health ‘un-benefits’ of smoking 15 cigarettes per day,” Burns said.

She said communities can create solutions by supporting the continued life purpose of older adults, providing additional adult daycare opportunities, volunteer and mentorship programs as well as funding “friendship lines,” which are crisis intervention hotlines for non-emergency emotional support calls.

Burns also echoed the importance of free or subsidized transportation for elders to provide access to these programs.

Supervisor Chavez asked attendees to submit suggestions for action during the two-hour meeting Wednesday. She hopes to bring these recommendations to the board for approval.

In addition to keeping seniors occupied, another major concern in Santa Clara County is seniors living in poverty.

Recent reports have found that 7.7 percent of older adults are food insecure nationally. In the San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara metropolitan area, that number is 11.5 percent, the third highest in the nation for a metro area.

Vanessa Merlano, the county’s senior nutrition program manager, said the county provides meals at 40 sites countywide for adults older than 60. The mobility management program has provided more than 1,000 bus passes per month to help individuals participate in the senior nutrition program. Paratransit service costs are also covered to get seniors to the sites.

Merlano suggested expanding meal delivery with food trucks, in addition to beefing up staffing at the senior nutrition management program.

Bob Stromberg of Destination: Home reported that of the 9,700 homeless individuals counted in the county’s most recent survey through the county, 43 percent of those are over 51 years of age. In the last three years, more than 3,000 older adults entered the social services system for the first time — half of those were age 50 or older and experiencing homelessness for the first time.

Diana Miller from the county’s Department of Aging and Adult Services said the forum and other discussions like it directly helps inform the county’s three-year plan of action.

“I think people really find this is a way to look at the whole city’s livability,” Miller told San José Spotlight. “They say if it’s good for an 80-year-old, it’s good for an 8-year-old, from good benches to walkable communities.”

Contact Katie Lauer at klauer77@gmail.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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