Clay Kempf of the Seniors Council of Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties holds the state's Master Plan for Aging.
Clay Kempf, executive director of the Seniors Council of Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties, holds the state’s Master Plan for Aging.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz County is graying and the impending silver tsunami has service providers worried

Santa Cruz County’s 65-84 age bracket grew by 81% between 2010 and 2020, according to Census data, and whether it’s services like health care, an aging homeless population or lonely older adults, a surge in demand is coming.

When Santa Cruz County released its State of the Workforce report earlier this month, it offered concrete figures behind a demographic shift locals have been talking about for years: Santa Cruz County is going gray.

Nearly 30% of the total workforce is at least 55 years old. Between 2017 and 2022, the 65-and-older crowd grew by 18% countywide, while the population younger than 65 shrank. And this silver tsunami is approaching Santa Cruz County faster than any other county in the state, according to the Seniors Council of Santa Cruz and San Benito County. Between 2010 and 2020, the county’s 65-84 age bracket grew by 81% according to Census data, compared to a roughly 40% increase statewide.

When Clay Kempf, executive director of the Seniors Council of Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties, looks at the surge of older adults, all he sees is a surge in demand for senior services, something he says the county is not fully prepared for.

“An 80% growth in the senior population assumes demand for services will see similar growth,” Kempf told me. “We’re talking about growth in the number of seniors living alone, seniors who qualify for Medi-Cal [the state Medicaid system], seniors who are hungry and who need shelter. It’s difficult to pick out what the priority is because of their interdependency.”

Kempf says efforts underway at the state and county levels shed a “ray of hope” on the inevitable surge of demand for senior services.

Upon his election in 2018, Gov. Gavin Newsom began working on the Master Plan for Aging, a statewide roadmap for improving services and amenities for older adults as the population ages. By 2030, 1 in 4 Californians is expected to be 65 or older; in Santa Cruz County, that number is expected to jump to 1 in 3.

Next month, the state’s health and human services agency will send out a survey aimed at assessing the needs of seniors throughout California, with a comprehensive report, to be published by the end of the year, laying the groundwork for where the state and local communities should focus their effort on improving the lives of senior citizens.

Alicia Morales, director of Santa Cruz County’s adult and long-term care division, tells me the county, its four cities and local senior-focused organizations will follow up the state’s senior needs assessment survey and report with a hyperlocal version of their own, so as to better understand the senior population in Santa Cruz County and how to prioritize its resources.

Morales, 57 and caring for an aging parent, already sees a handful of unmet needs the county must prioritize. The rental market in Santa Cruz County (the least affordable in the U.S.) means a precarious future for senior renters, especially those on fixed incomes. Morales said the ability to age in place — that is, to remain in one’s home — is among the cardinal desires for seniors. She also pointed to a graying homeless population, a local medical care system where more than 20% of care providers are over 65 years old, and a services ecosystem that is difficult to navigate.

“I’ve been in adult services for more than 25 years; when I’m looking for services for my mom, it’s a challenge for me,” Morales said. “And if it’s bad for me, how do you think it’s going to be for someone just starting out, or experiencing some level of dementia or cognitive decline?”

Gine Johnson, an analyst with District 5 Supervisor Bruce McPherson’s office, agrees that housing and transportation, medical facilities and food are critical to serving seniors; however, she told me that while many needs are infrastructure-based, some of the most important aren’t.

“The No. 1 issue we see is isolation and loneliness,” Johnson said. “A lot of seniors, no matter their income, mostly figure out how to meet their daily needs, whether they are meals at Meals on Wheels, or scheduling a ride to an appointment. But isolation and loneliness is a big problem. You might not hear about it a lot. But you don’t need to hear about it to see it. We need to be thinking in terms of seniors as being a part of the community.”

Despite this local and statewide push to center their needs, seniors have, at times, faced difficulty being prioritized locally.

Clay Kempf, executive director of the Seniors Council of Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The county, in a partnership with the City of Santa Cruz, cut funding to nonprofit senior services by $186,000 per year between fiscal years 2022 and 2025. The move is part of the Collective of Results and Evidence-based (CORE) Investments program the county and city has been using to equitably place public dollars into the local nonprofit sector. As part of the cuts, the city and county approved recommendations from the CORE program’s community panel to stop putting money into the ElderDay adult day health care program, as well as an advocate position for seniors in long-term care and an outreach program aimed at addressing the harms of senior loneliness.

Kempf, the executive director at the Senior Council, said since the programs receive funding from other sources beyond the city and county, the cuts do not necessarily ring the death knell but reflect a concerning shift in priorities.

“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” Kempf said. “Some change is not unusual. However, the changes we see in this latest process are alarming for older adults, especially since the population is growing so much.”

Then, in Live Oak, a senior service center, which includes Meals on Wheels, is negotiating with its landlord, the Live Oak School District, to keep from getting evicted amid the school district’s vision for a new teacher and workforce housing development on the property. Last month, the school district extended its eviction deadline until the end of August.

Mark Johannessen, a local attorney who sits on the county’s Seniors Commission, said the space is where Meals on Wheels — a lifeline for low-income seniors — prepares all of its food. Without that building, Johannessen said there “is no other place for Meals on Wheels to prepare their food.” He said the sides are still negotiating a potential long-term lease.

The notion of a critical senior service outfit getting evicted and replaced by schoolteachers speaks to the-long held concern that seniors struggle to have their issues prioritized in a society run by the young; however, that might soon change as well.

Owing to its sheer size, the Baby Boomer generation has ruled over American society’s direction since the 1960s. Despite retirement and aging out of the economy, Baby Boomers’ power at the ballot box will remain strong. Kempf and Johannessen understand this well, and know the prioritization of senior issues depends on who gets voted into office. The Seniors Council plans to host a robust series of candidate forums for the 2024 election. Although they’ve held some in the past for specific races, Kempf said this latest effort is an attempt to harness the power of seniors on Election Day.

“One of the common things I hear from seniors is that younger people speak to seniors like kids. They talk down to them all the time,” Johannessen said. “As this population gets older, it’s important for people to know that they have a voice.”