Older and Alone in Marin

By Linda Jackson
AAI Program Director

Christmas this year was different; not one of our daughters came home. I get it — they’re adults with their own lives and roots forming thousands of miles away. (Don’t get me started on the lack of affordable housing for the young people who grew up in Marin!) After decades of having a home filled with the energy and laughter of a family, it is a transition to being just the two of us again. We had to figure out, anew, the best way to enjoy the lights, the message of the power of miracles, and the gatherings around us.

This toe-in-the-water experience of no longer having family close by is perhaps why I found the recent AARP article “Is There a Medical Cure for Loneliness?” a compelling read. The authors covers recent research about loneliness, the science of contributing factors, and the cellular reinforcing reaction that might be relieved and reversed with medication to alleviate inflammation. 

Stephanie Cacioppo ends the article with this definition: “Loneliness is the discrepancy between what you want from your relationships and what you actually have.” 

Thanks to recent research for the Age-Friendly and Area Agency on Aging plans, we have some facts about being older and alone in Marin:

  • 41 percent of people over 75 live alone. 
  • A third of people 60 to 74 are living alone. 
  • Low-income adults are twice as likely to live alone. 
  • Limited mobility exacerbates loneliness. 
  • People (mostly male) age 40 to 69 accounted for 57 percent of deaths by suicide in Marin between 2013 and 2018, yet they make up only 45 percent of the county’s population. 

The PG&E power shutdown revealed the extent of people living alone in Marin. The reasons for being alone include the loss of partners, friends, and family members and/or the loss of hearing, sight, and mobility. 

Being alone isn’t the challenge. The challenge is the resulting loneliness if one doesn’t have the relationships one wants. Without the right kind of housing (assisted living, memory care, affordable independent living), older people can’t access new homes with a supportive community. Without affordable housing, family members can’t live here close to parents.

Surveys tell us that most older people prefer to continue living in their homes. Yet research tells us the potential negative health effects of social isolation often found in the suburbs: chronic loneliness, cognitive decline, depression and mental illness, and heart disease. 

There are solutions found around the world. In France, people can pay postal workers to visit with distant relatives. In northern Europe, co-housing enables older people to live in intergenerational communities. Denmark revamped a myriad of transit systems to provide better mobility services for people with disabilities and seniors. In California, new laws make it easier than ever to build an accessory dwelling unit so that homeowners can have a family member, companion, or caregiver close-by. And across the county, weekly meals at community centers provide a chance for people to meet up and enjoy food and conversation together. 

The good news for 2020 is that you will have new funding opportunities to help end loneliness in Marin. This month, Marin County Parks staff invite inquiries about small grants to help older people get out for hikes and other excursions. Later this year, Marin Mental Health Services Act staff will issue requests for proposals for projects to implement its new three-year plan, due to be presented to the Board of Supervisors in the next few months. And Marin’s Aging & Adult Services will release requests for proposals in late spring to implement the new AAA Plan. 

New funding presents the chance for innovations to take root throughout Marin. Start thinking about what your organization can do to bring people together. Let’s maximize the outreach to older homeowners about wildfire safety to share tools and tips about successful aging at home. What ideas do you have? Read November’s article about collaborations to think about how to leverage your organization’s skills with others. Meet with potential partners, think how your organization or group can make a difference, and submit a proposal!

So, how did I enjoy the holidays this year? We had a lovely night out for dinner and music with our goddaughter and her husband. We went to San Francisco for Christmas Eve to see the lights and ice skaters. We started some new traditions with a down-sized Christmas tree for our down-sized apartment in downtown San Rafael.

Let’s do whatever we can to build the connections and tools so nobody is alone and lonely the next time there is a holiday, or a storm, fire, heat wave, or flood ~  

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2019: A Year of Collaborations

By Linda Jackson
AAI Program Director

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” 

I am reminded of these words spoken by Ursula LeGuin when she received, at 84, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2014 National Book Awards.  

AAI is grounded in the belief that we can find the words and paths needed to change the beliefs, systems, and power that confound and constrict the lives of the people we work with every day. Perpetual competition for funding, embedded barriers to people who need help the most, and professional silos are not going to bring about needed meaningful changes to the way we do things. We are working collectively to make changes.

2019 was a growth year for collaborations in Marin.

AAI’s newsletter reached 1,000 subscribers this year. With your news, alerts, and updates, AAI puts together what has become Marin’s key source of what’s happening each month. Each month AAI highlights a different collaborator in the County. This month we welcome new Marin Health & Human Services Director Benita McLarin’s to the AAI network. Read her introduction here.

AAI and the Commission on Aging kicked off a new key initiative: the Advocacy Alliance. The four issues we focus on — economic security, health, housing, and transportation — are critical elements for safe and happy living ’til the end. As its kickoff event, the Alliance will hold, in partnership with the League of Women Voters, a candidates forum the afternoon of Wednesday, February 5.

AAI, with the Commission on Aging and Age-Friendly Marin, hosted a book talk with Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks and the blog Is This Ageist? Ashton’s writings have helped me as I get older to better discern aging equity. At the Convening this year, a panel of Marin leaders explored the intersectionality of ageism with other inequities. We cannot forget that we are in this work together, as Applewhite describes eloquently in a recent post about the #OKBoomer meme:

The old are not the enemy and age is not the issue. As historian Holly Scott pointed out in the Washington Post, the problem with #OKBoomer is that “generational divides distract from deeper questions of power.” And privilege. The issue is inequality, which does not discriminate by age. What stands between us and a more equitable world are the structures and systems that benefit from oppression — racism, sexism, ageism, and all the rest — because prejudice pits us against each other in order to maintain the status quo. Like auto workers in the U.S. competing against auto workers in Mexico instead of organizing for better wages, pitting young against old is a time-honored tactic used to divide people who might otherwise unite to change things. 

Speaking of the Convening: this year we added breakout sessions with Inform&Connect conversations, age-friendly updates, and advocacy training. 

Detect&Connect  took off this year, thanks to a County MHSA Innovation Project grant. Ellen Baxter joined AAI this year as the Detect&Connect program coordinator, taking this mental health and dementia workshop from a start-up to a fully launched program. This year, 139 people attended a Detect&Connect workshop. At least that many are scheduled to go to a workshop in the first two months of 2020! If your organization hasn’t yet signed up to host a free workshop for your staff and volunteers, send Ellen a note at ellen@agingactioninitiative.org. 

AAI applauds the work of the County of Marin to create its first Age-Friendly Plan. Under the leadership of Marin’s Aging & Adult Services, leaders from throughout Marin met with County department representatives to craft a plan that will improve the way that the County works with the 70,000+ older adults in Marin. The Age-Friendly plan will be presented to the Marin County Board of Supervisors this winter. Look for an invitation to attend the hearing soon!

AAI partnered with the Commission on Aging, Leadership Novato, and local architects, builders, and others in the housing sector to hold three JADU expos to promote the creation of junior accessory dwelling units. We are thrilled to know that more affordable housing is coming online at Victory Village in Fairfax, Whistlestop in San Rafael, and eventually at the Coast Guard site in Pt. Reyes. And we spoke up at local jurisdictions about the challenging older renters face in Marin. 

One of AAI’s steering committee members recently called out the “mutuality of respect throughout the network.” Another local leader said, “We leave our cards at the door.” This change from working just in the one professional silo we know to reaching out to create something new has resulted in a proliferation of collaborations across Marin: Whistlestop and Marin Center for Independent Living, Marin Community Foundation’s All.Together.Now Economic Security Summit, Marin Transit’s Mobility Consortium, Healthy Marin Partnership, In-Home Supportive Services and the Multicultural Center of Marin, Food Policy Council, Resident Services Coordinator Network and Marin VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), and many more.

AAI is generating waves and making changes. We are on the way to making sure that we are ready to help all older adults in Marin — especially those with the fewest resources and the worst challenges — live in safety, comfort, and community until the end. 

Join me in raising a glass to toast ‘resist and change’ in 2020 ~ 

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AAI Welcomes New Health & Human Services Director

AAI is excited to welcome Benita McLarin to Marin! Benita joined Marin County as Director of Health and Human Services in September 2019.  She previously served as the Chief Operating Officer for the public hospital of Santa Clara County, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California for over five years.  Her other recent professional experiences include serving as the Vice President for Ambulatory Health Care Services for Alameda Health System and in senior positions for Sonoma County Department of Health Services and Solano County Health and Social Services Department.

Benita received her Master of Science degree in Health Policy and Management from Harvard University School of Public Health, her Master of Health Administration degree from Chapman University and her Bachelor of Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Benita is a Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives.

Benita grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and entered the U.S. Army while in high school, completing basic training between her junior and senior years.  She served over 20 years on active duty as a Medical Service Corps officer with several deployments abroad, including being an ambulance company commander during the Gulf War. She retired from the Army in 2006 as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Earlier this month, Benita met with the AAI Advocacy Alliance. She expressed that in her short time working in Marin, she has become aware of the disparities that exist among older adults who are lower income, people of color and/or geographically isolated.  Benita stated that she hopes to be part of this important work and to give it all the support she can. 

“Work pertaining to aging resonates deeply with me both professionally and personally for many reasons, including that I share my home with my dear mother and serve as her primary caregiver,” Benita said.

In her role as Director and as a new resident of Marin County, Benita is excited about the Age-Friendly County of Marin Action Plan, which will be presented for approval to the Marin Board of Supervisors in early 2020. 

“I’m very excited about this new plan and about the positive impact it will have on all residents of Marin County in the years to come”. 

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The Ins and Outs of a Perfect Collaboration

By Aaron Alarcon-Bowen
IHSS Public Authority Executive Director

One word that we hear a lot in the social service field is “collaboration”. It is almost expected that, in order to reach our goals and performance measurements, public and nonprofit leaders must find ways to collaborate with other agencies (or even other sectors). In light of that, very little is said about how to form the perfect collaboration that will get things done. During my more than two years of tenure as the executive director of the IHSS Public Authority, building partnerships has been at the top of my priorities. Here’s some of the things that I have learned during this journey:

  1. The first element of a good collaboration is finding common ground. Doing this is not as simple as it sounds: at times, it is necessary to do a thorough inventory of each agency’s mission and vision. This might take time. Have brainstorming sessions that include direct staff. Ask questions. Spend time analyzing the daily activities of both organizations until you find an area of overlap. The collaboration IHSS Public Authority developed with Dominican University is a great example of how collaboration is a process. We started our partnership two years ago; in order to continue finetuning our ongoing relationship, every semester we hold meetings and focus groups that include the University’s faculty and students, IHSS Public Authority staff, and even some of our consumers.
  2. Once a common interest or a common goal is determined, it is important that both agencies enter an agreement as equals. Collaborations involving one agency as the “less powerful player” and the other as the opposite will see them struggling to agree on tasks and who is in charge. Regardless of the size of the agency, an equal footing based on respect and mutual understanding is a must. When I reached out to College of Marin President Dr. Coon to launch the first ESL class offered by the Public Authority, it was intimidating to approach such a large and respected institution. However, Dr. Coon made sure that our partnership was based on respect and fairness.
  3. Being equal partners in a collaboration does not mean that both agencies will do exactly the same task or that they both will bring equal amounts of resources to the table. It means that both agencies are working equally hard to make sure that the common goal is reached. For instance, if an agency is more capable to provide financial resources than the other, then the less financially solvent agency must be creative to match the same level of involvement, even if what this agency brings to the table is not money. Communication is the key.
  4. Lastly, it is important to always keep an open mind. Not all collaborations are supposed to fix “all the world’s problems”. And that’s okay. Sometimes partnerships should be kept for networking purposes in hopes that something with more substance emerges at a later time. When IHSS Public Authority first started partnering with the Mexican and Salvadorian Consulates in San Francisco with the goal of recruiting care providers, our expectations were too high and, in all honesty, unrealistic. After two years, we adjusted our involvement and participation and as a result, we have maintained a collaboration that has helped us extend our network and our presence in the community. Another example is our collaboration with the YWCA. Though both agencies have the goal of finding employment for consumers, our logistics are different. Regardless, we were able to find a small, overlapping area where we could collaborate in a manner that was mutually beneficial.

Don’t be scared! Knock on doors. The worst thing that could happen is being told “no”. I promise you that you will find not only one but many “yeses” down the road.

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Debriefing the PSPS

By Linda Jackson
AAI Program Director

One night in my second story stucco apartment in a small Andean village, a sharp and long rolling earthquake jolted me awake. As a California girl, I knew what to do: I slipped on my shoes (shaking them out to make sure there were no hiding scorpions, per Peace Corps advice) and sweater, always by my bed, and dashed to the threshold at the front door. When the earth settled down, I went outside to check on my neighbors, an older couple who ran a tiny store where I bought my breakfast every day. Thankfully they were OK.   

Turned out everyone had gone outside. The electricity was out, so it was a lovely darkness with moonlight revealing groups of people talking. We gravitated to the largest store in town, bright on the plaza thanks to the dueña’s generator. As humans have done for millenia, we gathered and waited for the second earthquake (“Don’t go back inside yet!”), and to ask each other for news of friends and neighbors. It was hours before people made their way back to their homes. 

After that night, at every Amas de Casa meeting (weekly health classes that I taught in neighboring villages) over the next few weeks, women shared stories about where they were, how they took care of their families, and what they knew of this and past earthquakes. 

I was just five months into my Peace Corps service in the midst of an eyes-wide-open view of the human experience shared after a disaster. We gather, build a shared recollection of what happened, learn something more about what to do next time, and resume our lives. In my little corner of the world, buses started running again, the electricity came back on, and life resumed its daily rhythm. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the 8.2 earthquake that day, and the tsunami it triggered, killed more than 500 people. 

Fast forward a few decades to Northern California. The emergency this time came with advanced notice from PG&E about a shutdown of electrical power. Those privileged enough to have generators had power, but for most there was no medical support, no light, no way to contact family or friends, no news, and no coffee.  

In the AAI network, everyone from public agencies from the County to the smallest local agency stepped up to conduct their emergency operations responsibilities. Healthcare personnel provided medical alerts with advice and information about assistance, and checked in on patients about their well-being. Nonprofits checked in on their clients to make sure they had what they needed. Local community leaders from the Commission on Aging, Age-Friendly Planning, and Marin Villages shared official updates with their networks and visited local residential communities. Senior residential care facilities opened their doors to evacuees from Sonoma. 

Ever since the power came back on, we have been sharing our experiences. For the last couple of weeks, meetings began with a debrief of who did what. We are also sharing ideas of what we can do differently and better next time. 

As we look ahead to the next few years while the power grid’s maintenance is restored so that these days of shutdowns are a memory, there will be other emergencies and disasters. One of the greatest challenges remains how to contact and connect with our clients and colleagues when we don’t have electricity, internet, or cell phone service. We have to figure this out, because, as we saw in New Orleans in 2009 and now in Marin, being disconnected and alone are profound equity issues.

Here are three suggestions:

  • If you are a community-based organization, sign up to be part of VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster). VOAD is a collaboration of non-profit, faith-based, community, and government agencies who work together to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate in a disaster. As we look ahead to how we can better respond to our clients, colleagues, and neighbors, we are fortunate to have this recently resurrected emergency preparedness network. This newsletter will share VOAD findings and recommendations as they emerge so you can upgrade your agency’s preparedness and response.

    To join the VOAD network and participate in building the capacity of community-based organizations in responding in a disaster, contact Adriana Rabkin at marinvoad@gmail.com.
  • Share the Commission of Aging’s Older Adult Housing in Marin report. We learned that there are independent senior residential communities where older people did not have the contact needed to ensure their well-being during the shutdown. The report’s Appendix A is an inventory of housing for older adults by jurisdiction. For agencies, community-based groups and healthcare workers, the report is an invaluable resource to identify where older people live in our cities and towns.

In the end, what matters most? During the PG&E power shutdown, many of us found a respite from the screen. We had instead real-time face-time connections with our family, neighbors, colleagues and clients. This is described eloquently in these reflections from Marin IJ columnist Vicki Larsen.

Earthquakes and other natural disasters, power shutdowns, and other man-made disasters — these events are reminders of what is most important in our lives and on this earth. May you have a happy Thanksgiving ~ 

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