Aging baby boomers will create 'silver tsunami' for Sonoma County
Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 2:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 11, 2013 at 7:05 a.m.
Before she came to Santa Rosa 16 years ago, Jackie Cohen spent her life in New York City.
Cohen, 86, raised her family working as a secretary while her husband, a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, worked in maintenance at the Lincoln Center.
But Cohen, who lives at the Silvercrest senior complex in Santa Rosa, left New York to be closer to her son and has never regretted the move.
"The best thing I ever did was come here," Cohen said. "I think Santa Rosa is wonderful. There are so many programs here for seniors."
Even with those programs, growing old has not been easy. Cohen struggles with arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. And as the ranks of the elderly begin to swell, it's not at all clear that the community will be able to maintain the level of care and resources Cohen has come to appreciate.
"I think all over the world there are going to be more seniors, and it's not easy," Cohen said last week as she ate lunch provided by the Council on Aging, a local nonprofit that provides services to people over age 60.
In fact, the so-called "silver tsunami" being generated by aging baby boomers will peak in Sonoma County a lot sooner than most people realize. And as that occurs, the number of working-age adults in Sonoma County -- those who pay most of the taxes that support services for the elderly -- will be declining.
Today, one in seven county residents is 65 and older. But in 2030 -- just 17 years away -- that share will grow to one in four people, a demographic balance that will endure for at least three decades.
What's more, in just seven years, one in five county residents will be 65 and older. This rapid expansion of the senior population will cause unprecedented growing pains in the county and will require a dramatic shift in local business, education, housing, health care and just about everything else.
"Right now, there are services that people want and resources that people need that don't exist or are very expensive," said Diane Kaljian, director of the adult and aging services division of the county Human Services Department.
"We're going to be able to deal with it if we are thoughtful about it. But if we continue to have our solution be that people have to pay out of pocket for any services they get, that's not going to be a solution to this huge influx of older adults."
The number of county seniors 65 and older was 67,763 in 2010. It will nearly double to 126,762 by 2030. Meanwhile, the population of residents 64 years and younger will decline slightly from 416,321 to 407,676.
After 2030, the number of working-age residents, age 18 to 64, is expected to increase by almost 16.6 percent by 2060, from 298,147 to 347,675, according to state projections. The population of people under 18 also is expected to grow by 14.4 percent during this period, from 109,529 to 125,264.
But because people are living longer, these increases are going to be offset by the county's aging population. The number of people 85 and older is expected to triple by 2060, from 11,183 in 2010 to 34,341 in 2060.
"People are getting prepared for it, but it's still going to be a tsunami," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
Stone said it's likely seniors will continue to work beyond the traditional retirement age, a current trend that will ease the feared exodus of baby boomers from the workforce. Some retirees may start new businesses that cater to the needs of older residents, while others will devote their free time to volunteer work.
"It's just such a new phenomenon," Stone said. "We're going to see more entrepreneurial activity, more volunteerism."
Stone pointed to volunteer efforts, such as the United Way's Schools of Hope program, as crucial to addressing the current demographic shift. The program, a joint effort with the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, schools and parents, uses volunteer tutors to raise the reading proficiency of third-graders.
Seniors who leave the workforce will have to be replaced by younger workers. In Sonoma County, Latinos are a growing share of the youth workforce and their academic success will be one of the key factors to achieving a thriving local economy, Stone said.
"Seniors can be helpful" during this transition, he said.
Naomi Fuchs, CEO of the Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, said the next 10 to 15 years will require expansion of programs such as in-home supportive services. Her organization, one of the fastest growing medical providers in the county, is planning to build a senior clinic in downtown Santa Rosa.
Kaljian of the county's adult and aging services said current government services for seniors, such as in-home support or senior housing and assisted-living communities, are focused exclusively on people who are poor. These services can be extremely expensive and often beyond the reach of middle-income seniors who do not qualify for the government programs.
"For people who don't have those kinds of resources, they're quite limited," she said.
Among the other obstacles for seniors on the North Coast is the lack of transportation options for those who can no longer drive.
"We're going to have to develop resources as a society," she said.
News Researcher Janet Balicki assisted in this story. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.