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Opinion: San Diego’s Most Vulnerable Seniors Need Our Help. Here’s What You Can Do.

“Don’t let your brain betray you.”

These aren’t my words, but those of loving grandfather, California Senior Legislature member and advocate for local seniors Luis Monge, whose wisdom guides this opinion piece.

His words may seem simple at first glance. But beneath that simplicity lies a complicated reality for seniors in San Diego as the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for them to access social services, connect with loved ones, go to work, be physically active and find meaning through volunteering.

The threat of the novel coronavirus to older people’s health has forced them to stay home and made regular activities nearly impossible for nearly a year. The vaccine that is now making its way into our communities will provide relief for some, but all seniors will have to remain vigilant until the virus is fully under control. Even after the pandemic has passed, disconnection and isolation will continue to impact seniors’ health as they have for decades.

That’s exactly why Monge shares this advice — he knows how isolation can destroy mental health, exacerbate physical ailments and increase loneliness. As an active senior in Chula Vista, he says, “You need to get involved, talk to your neighbor, or walk the block, enjoy the scenery.”

The loss of seniors in the public sphere because of the pandemic has come at a tremendous cost, cutting off our community from the wisdom older people have to offer. As volunteers, workers and community leaders, seniors contribute enormously to our quality of life in San Diego.

Before the pandemic, our aging population already faced tough issues, including:

Exploding population growth: An increase in the number of seniors is coming as the Baby Boom generation ages and as existing services to support older people in our region are already inadequate.

Increase in elder orphans: People are living longer and more seniors live alone now than in the old days when multigenerational households were the norm.

Economic insecurity: People who worked low-wage jobs their whole lives weren’t able to accumulate wealth and save for retirement. The average Social Security benefit is not nearly enough to cover the cost of living in San Diego, which means many older people are aging into poverty. Seniors are the fastest-growing segment of our local homeless population.

That’s just the beginning. Food insecurity, employment discrimination, difficulty accessing health care and lack of transportation join the growing list of challenges that San Diego’s aging residents face. These hardships are particularly acute for people of color who have experienced a lifetime of discrimination.

As a leader within the philanthropic community with decades of experience bringing opportunities to underserved populations, I am committed to uplifting current and future generations of older people. But most especially, as a senior myself, I represent a population that has much left to offer and deserves the opportunity to lead more dynamic lives.

The San Diego Seniors Community Foundation is here to increase awareness of what’s happening and to mobilize the community to best support our aging population. Our mission is to increase charitable giving to programs and projects that benefit vulnerable older people (nationally, only 2 percent of charitable giving benefits seniors).

We have a vision to upgrade existing senior centers into a thriving network in which each center acts as a hub for all aging-related needs. By prioritizing funding for senior centers, we can transform them from mere recreational spaces into a one-stop-shop public health resource. Places where seniors can be part of a supportive community, access health resources and get help from qualified experts in navigating the services available to them.

Our most recent efforts centered on helping isolated seniors weather the COVID-19 storm. We launched the No Senior Alone initiative to raise $1 million to end social isolation for San Diego’s most vulnerable seniors. As Monge said at the kickoff announcement, “We all belong to this world, we all need to enjoy it, and we all need to have the services.”

Ensuring seniors have access to quality services to help them thrive in old age is exactly what our foundation aims to do.

I encourage San Diegans to speak up in support of investments and policies that will help older adults live healthy, vibrant lives. We must commit to making San Diego a better place to grow old because all of us — if we’re lucky — will be seniors one day.

This op-ed was first published by The San Diego Union-Tribune. Read the original here.

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