Henry Cisneros on Policies to Help California Seniors Age in Place

California's aging baby-boomer population has policymakers and developers thinking about how to let them age at home. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California may be the sixth youngest state right now. But it has an outsized population of Baby Boomers.

“They are turning 65 soon,” says Adele Hayutin, a Senior Research Scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity.

“We’ll have a doubling of our older population over the next 20 years,” Hayutin says. “That makes us aging faster than the United States, which I think is a bit of a surprise to people.”

In a recent paper, Hayutin wrote that projections show in 2040 California’s population will be slightly older than the nation’s as a whole. That has implications for policy makers, developers, and residents — everyone who lives here will feel the effect.

And the sooner the planning starts the better, says Henry Cisneros.

Cisneros is the former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton. He just co-edited a book with two scholars at Stanford – Jane Hickie and Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain – called “Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America.

“When we listen to older Americans themselves,” Cisneros says, “when they describe the things they fear about aging in place … it’s things like isolation, being left alone and not being able to negotiate neighborhood streets. Not being able to get to the doctor or grocery store.”

By 2040 California’s population will be slightly older than the nation’s as a whole. That has implications for policy makers, developers, and residents — everyone who lives here will feel the effect.

Increasingly the state has neighborhoods where entire communities are aging in place. Urban planners have a name for these: NORCs, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. Cisnero says adapting to them can require some changes.

“Sidewalks that make it possible for people to walk safely. Slowing down the traffic on some of the adjacent streets and arterials so older people have a chance to be mobile as opposed to trapped in their home,” he says.

Some California cities have started taking these steps, a few even taking it further. Take Davis, California, says Cisneros, where the city government is working to change the zoning code. They want to allow for small “granny flats” or adjacent dwellings on single family lots so older people can live adjacent to younger families who occupy the main house.

Other policy changes could take into account health care delivery, changing the scale and citing of new houses or adjusting how communities are policed.

Some of the change, though, will come from residents organizing themselves. Cisneros points to San Francisco as an example. Specifically with the rise of a new phenomenon being called a “virtual village network.

Cisneros says under the model, older Americans join a local network and then “have the capacity to be taken to the doctor, or get a ride to the grocery or have groceries brought to them as they need them, or to have a specialist drop in and help them with a particularly heavy task they have.”

Other points of progress he points to in San Francisco are its network of elder-oriented nonprofits, specifically strong in the Asian community.

“If you go into [the city] on some weekday mornings and drive by a San Francisco park you will see 30 people in formation,” Cisneros says. “Older Americans, doing tai chi and other exercises, organized by neighborhood groups. That’s the kind of thing we’re going to see a lot more in the future, recreation programs and fitness programs for an aging population.”

“If we do not prepare our young people to be workers to make contributions in tax and revenues, then there simply won’t be enough resources to deal with the needs of older Americans.”

But the need for those might be very different throughout the state. Stanford’s Hayutin says California aging population varies dramatically by region.

“For example the northern California counties, Calaveras and all the Sierra, tend to be much older,” Hayutin says “Whereas Southern California … has a much younger population.”

Cisneros says one important aspect of making good aging policy is having a strong understanding between the generations.

“If we do not prepare our young people to be workers,” he says. “to make contributions in tax and revenues, then there simply won’t be enough resources to deal with the needs of older Americans … It will be critical for those in the workforce to be very productive.”

Just as young people need to support those policies that help the older generation, he says older Americans need to keep supporting public resources like education.

“Those are intergenerational compacts that are going to have to be achieved, not easy to do at all, they’re not easily understandable, they are very difficult to enact,” Cisneros says. “But important that people try to understand if we’re going to have anything that resembles a harmonious society when we are competing for resources going forward.”

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  • Kate Hoepke

    Thanks for mentioning San Francisco Village. We launched in January 2009 and currently have close to 200 members. We’re part of the village movement that’s catching fire all over the country. We’re one of 80 active villages, with 120 in development, supported by the Village to Village Network. Our goal is to support and empower older adults in the transitions that come with getting older. We help our members prepare for and navigate these transitions by offering friendship, expert guidance, services and fun! Visit us at http://www.sfvillage.org

  • Andy

    People young and old are recognizing that its time for a culture change in how people age in this country. Last week an article was published in the SF Chron about a new study of loneliness showing that it can be lethal for seniors. This week there’s this important story suggesting that policies need to be shifted to address our aging demographic. As Kate mentions, there is a movement of Villages around the country in which people are coming together to build connection and support each other to continue aging independently in their homes. Ashby Village is a Village in the East Bay serving Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Kensington, Emeryville and parts of North Oakland. You can find out more by going to http://www.ashbyvillage.org.

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