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Unseen and Unheard: Aging in Need in Orange County

Unseen and Unheard: Aging in Need in Orange County

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We’re unprepared to address the needs of one of the fastest-growing segments of our population.

Older adults today are more visible, active and independent than any previous generation. Many are in better shape and embracing life in ways their parents and grandparents never imagined.

But those are only the ones we see. There is another, often hidden, population of older adults who are hungry, homeless, neglected or living precariously without a safety net, right here in Orange County.

“In Orange County, as people age, their voices become quieter and quieter. As a community, we are not hearing them,” says Lisa Wright Jenkins, president and chief executive officer, Council on Aging-Orange County.

According to the Council of Aging-Orange County, the 65+ population who lives alone exceeds 75,000 and is increasing in size and need every year. And the truth is that we are significantly underprepared to meet their needs.  There are an additional 28,000 seniors who live in 1,100 residential long-term care facilities in Orange County.  Heartbreakingly, half of them have no friend or family member actively involved in their care.

One in five seniors barely scrapes by at the poverty line, according to the California Poverty Measure. And related to this is a significant housing challenge, as 69 percent of the adults who receive rental assistance from the OC Housing Authority are seniors and disabled. 

“Many seniors are being forced to make the decision between buying food, paying rent, filling their prescriptions or paying for transportation,” SeniorServ’s President and Chief Executive Officer Holly Hagler explained. 

Demonstrating this critical need, SeniorServ provides daily meals to approximately 900 frail, homebound seniors through Meals on Wheels. The results are transformational. They can count a 34 percent reduction in hospitalization among clients.

While such nutritious meals feed the body, we need to look at ways to feed the soul, too, while providing practical assistance with every day needs. 

Most of the one in three older adults who live alone in Orange County are safely independent. For others, however, living alone means a debilitating lack of friendly contact, access to nutrition and safe housing.  

Without meaningful exchanges, older adults can easily slide into depression. They would fare far better if connected to friends, family and activities. However, that’s a formidable challenge here, where children and grandchildren often move away because of the high cost of housing. Such isolation can put older adults at risk on many fronts, including becoming targets for fraud and abuse when no one is looking after their interests. 

They need an advocate, and hundreds have found one in the Friendly Visitor Program. Operated by the Council on Aging – Orange County, the program is a lifeline for frail and isolated seniors. Trained volunteers make visits, check on seniors and take them out of the house for activities. These visits are especially important because the volunteer may be the only person who calls or visits all week.

Even here, in youth-obsessed Orange County, aging is inevitable. But allowing our older adults to go hungry, fear homelessness or face neglect should not be inevitable. It should be inexcusable. If you’d like to learn more, ask for our Special Report on older adults in Orange County to be released on July 29, 2014, or go to Nonprofit Central at ocnonprofitcentral.org and search “older adult” or “senior” to find ways to get involved.

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Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at shoss@oc-cf.org.

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