In a two-hour listening session on Sept. 7, a group of community leaders and interested residents shared concerns for seniors in San Benito County in regards to loneliness, health services and caregiver training.
Split into two discussion groups, the participants covering the worst possible future outcomes emphasized the problems created by loneliness, such feelings of isolation that lead to high suicide rates for seniors. Participants also flagged isolation, lack of human contact, and the attendant lack of friends as support systems as contributing factors to senior homelessness.
Seniors Council board member Mickie Luna said that surveys done by the Community Foundation for San Benito County place loneliness at the top of the list of issues seniors are facing.
“Seniors often have no one to talk to,” she said. “I had a group of college students do a survey contacting seniors at random. “The students told me that they could not get off the phone because the seniors kept wanting to talk.”
Willow Grove Union School District principal Linda Smith said that a program integrating different generations might help with the problem.
“We cannot discount the importance of combining youth with seniors,” she said. “There’s been a lot of research that it is a benefit for both age groups. The kids love it, and I have seen the seniors really enjoying it.”
Another issue is the county’s shortage of medical professionals, which creates problems for both seniors living in the county and those recently moving here, according to Christina Andrade, a family consultant with the Health Projects Center.
“One of my hopes,” she said, “is that seniors will be able to find a doctor who can take them and that they won’t have to wait four months to be able to see them.”
Lack of support and training for family caregivers was also a concern of both groups.
“Many times it is taken for granted that someone will be caring for their grandmother or their aunt,” Luna said. “But the training is actually not really there for them to take care of another person. They may end up relying on a neighbor or family member for help who also does not have training.”
The two discussion groups were also asked to suggest the best possible solutions and outcomes for seniors over the next few years. Responses included the creation of a Welcome Wagon type of organization to help newly arrived seniors orient themselves to the community and a resource guide for seniors to help them find needed services.
More affordable housing was seen as a way to ease senior homelessness and financial insecurity, and Andrade suggested tacking on a fee to all new home construction to help pay for senior services.
Luna pointed out that the Hollister City Council and San Benito County Board of Supervisors already fund certain senior services, adding that she would like to see monthly public reports given to those authorities to provide some accountability.
Seniors Council board member Wayne Norton said it was important for decision-makers to recognize the growth of the senior population and for their needs to gain more recognition.
Decision-makers, he said, “need to create a master plan and turn it into reality,” he said. “They can’t just make a plan and then put it on a shelf or keep it in the background for a couple of years. They need to tell their staffs to put it into action.”
Prior to the group discussion about best and worst outcomes, participants were asked to write down issues that they would cover as reporters or address as members of local government. Common themes in the responses included the lack of affordable housing and homelessness, not enough public transportation options available for seniors, limited or insufficient choices in healthcare, and a shortage of age-appropriate leisure time activities. Chronic loneliness and isolation were also listed.
Norton said the county’s growth rate of residents between ages 65 and 84 since 2010 is the third highest in the state, yet resources for seniors are generally insufficient.
“Back then,” he said, “the big push was for services for kids. But when you look at the statistics, the population of kids is barely growing, but the number of seniors is growing very fast, and services for them have not kept up to the demand.”
Ruby Dholakia, a retired university professor who moved to Hollister in 2020, described herself as representing that change in demographics and said that the area offered fewer leisure time opportunities for seniors.
Dholakia, who recently suffered a stroke, said that some of her obstacles to becoming more active were transportation and the lack of a centralized place for seniors to be able to go for activities.
“The isolation I feel, and that the members of the community feel,” she said, “could be solved by being able to arrange transportation to a hub where activities are taking place. If people are able to come together, that’s one way of solving loneliness.”
BenitoLink’s listening sessions are a continuation of those done by the Community Foundation for San Benito County. Several notable results followed the foundation’s 2011-12 listening sessions.
- The founding of BenitoLink, a nonprofit news organization serving the residents of San Benito County with local and regional news and information
- The REACH Parks Foundation, which has been central to the development of parks and walking trails in San Benito County
- The Community Foundation Women’s Fund, which has helped women with financial support and educational programs
- Local nonprofits such as the San Benito County Farm Bureau identified the need for leaders with a better understanding of agriculture, and worked to bring qualified team members into leadership positions
The 2023 Vision San Benito County Listening sessions are supported by the Calhoun/Christiano Family Fund and the Community Foundation for San Benito County. There are approximately 20 Listening Sessions scheduled throughout September to hear about issues and solutions from many small segments of the community. BenitoLink is reporting back the results in articles about each session.
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Community Vision San Benito County is a community-wide listening project hosted by BenitoLink and sponsored by the Community Foundation for San Benito County and the Calhoun/Christiano Family Fund.