Council on Aging Services for Seniors is a private non-profit organization which has been providing services for Sonoma County citizens over the age of 60 since 1966. They help seniors and their families through the challenges of aging with a variety of programs and services.
John and Penny Dolan had quite a menagerie on their Crystal Court property in the Mark West Springs area of Santa Rosa. Before the fires, that is.
With a dog, three cats and upwards of 70 chickens, Penny Dolan had a lot of family pets. She raises Marans chickens, practicing amateur animal husbandry and selective breeding to get uniquely colored eggs from her hens, who usually live long, healthy lives.
“I let them live out their lives in comfort, although when there are too many roosters, I occasionally sell them to friends,” Dolan said. “I don’t feel bad about it because they don’t suffer and it goes for food.”
One of the surviving chicken coops on the Dolan property. The house once stood in the upper left.
So when the couple evacuated their home in a neighborhood that was decimated by the historic conflagration, one of the last things they did was open their three chicken coops in case the fires missed the property and the chickens survived the advancing flames.
They headed west to a friend’s house on Burnside Road and watched the fires from the safety of the Sebastopol hills. At the time, they thought they might still be able to return to the house they lived in for 16 years.
Unfortunately, their home burned along with all but two in the neighborhood, but somehow the coops survived.
“As soon as they let us go back, we saw the house was burnt to the ground, but the chicken coops were still there,” Dolan said.
To Dolan’s surprise, there were still 10 live chickens running around the property, although she had to bury 25 others she found. The rest simply disappeared.
“They were on their own for five days,” Dolan said. “They were eating pumpkins, squash and apples that had fallen from the trees.”
But since the Dolans were living so far away with their friends Clark and Monica Wilcox, who moved to Sebastopol from Menlo Park in 2007, Penny was not able to get to the property to feed the animals.
So she found Marc Ash’s chickenchatcoop yahoo group to see if she could get someone to go up and feed the chickens for her, while she made arrangements for them at her new, temporary digs.
Penny Dolan happy to be reunited with her chickens.
Through a friend of a friend, Dolan also found Goatlandia farm animal sanctuary, the brainchild of former commercial pilot and restaurateur Deborah Blum, who moved from San Francisco to a 2-acre northwest Santa Rosa property in 2011 to establish a safe place for unwanted animals to live out their lives.
To Dolan’s surprise, a group of volunteers, including Ash, not only went up to feed the animals, but also rescued and brought them to Goatlandia.
“Around the time of the fires, a lot of people were looking for pets and animals lost or missing,” Blum said. “There were a lot in the first couple of days and it was easier to get past the barricades. It was so chaotic.”
Volunteers were able to talk their way past the roadblocks by explaining the mission of the nonprofit and did not run into resistance until later, when law enforcement and National Guard from around the state came to the region to tighten security on the affected areas.
Eventually, the Dolans’ menagerie made it to Goatlandia, and thanks to friends with sufficient space and a love of animals, they are all together again, waiting to move back home once the property is cleared for the rebuild.
They are down to one dog, two cats and the chickens. One of the cats ran away once they relocated to Sebastopol. Another cat, Nid Noy, was severely burned and spent time at a facility at UC Davis, but is well on her way to recovery.
As for Goatlandia, Blum said overall they rescued 100 animals. Of those, they are currently fostering 30 and have provided homes for 27. She added that she would take the lessons of the fires and begin training her volunteers so they will be prepared for any future community disasters.
Dolan said it will take at least two years for them to rebuild, but the pair plans on moving onto the property to a trailer after it is cleared.
“We’re going to rebuild,” she said. “It will be a smaller house, of course.”
But the chickens will be going back to their familiar coops that suffered minor damage, as a reminder of the randomness of the damage caused by the historic fires.
Penny Dolan feeds her chickens that survived the October fires at their temporary home in Sebastopol.
At the age of 90, Amos Coli is an active participant in the Sebastopol Area Senior Center’s In the News, a current events discussion group that has been meeting for many years. His perspectives add a lively element to the discussions, but with an outlook on life and politics filtered through the fog of war after a year spent imprisoned in a Nazi work camp, and a story that comes complete with a miraculous escape.
Captured by Germans
Amos Coli, pictured with Ralene Hearn, makes a point during the In the News Group at the Sebastopol Area Senior Center. Raised in a small town outside of Pisa, Italy, Coli spent a year in a Nazi work camp at the end of WWII.
In May 1944, just a few months after his 17th birthday, German soldiers rounded up Coli and six others from his village near Pisa. The war was winding down, and after American bombers took out an anti-aircraft gun the Germans set up in the town, residents thought it was safe to come out of hiding.
But one day, approaching soldiers Coli thought were Americans turned out to be Germans.
Before they knew what was happening, the group was taken to one of the most brutal and little-known work camps in Germany, Mittelbau-Dora.
“The Americans came in and dropped bombs and we thought the Germans were gone, so we weren’t hiding anymore,” Coli remembers. “But two Germans picked me up and they took us to the work camp in the Harz Mountains near Nordhausen.”
They were thrown in with other prisoners and forced into hard labor, in an attempt to finish a production facility for V-2 rockets the Nazi regime hoped to use in a desperate attempt to turn the losing tide of the war.
Growing up with war
Born in February 1927, Coli’s life was touched by war from the beginning.
His father, who fought against the Germans in WWI, was gassed in the trenches but survived to return home after the war without the use of an arm and a leg. In 1925, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini declared himself dictator and in 1940 allied with Germany for the coming war.
Coli’s father died three years later, when the son was 15 years old. The following year, Coli found himself being intentionally worked to death by a fading regime aware the end was near.
“The Italian people were 90 percent against Mussolini. It was a big, stupid mistake to join the Germans,” Coli said. “We won the war (WWI) and then 20 years later there’s another war? In school, we learned about the Romans and the Greeks. After 2,000 years, you’d think we’d learn how to live together.”
Coli went to school in Pisa and grew up in a little town four or five miles away that was “much like Sebastopol.”
He was in school until he was 16, when the bombs started falling and one landed on his school. The school trained engineers, mechanics and other technical vocations to aid in the coming war. That war became a horrible reality for Coli in 1944.
Worked to death
By the end of 1943, Mittlebau had the highest death rate in the entire concentration camp system. The camp was in central Germany, away from the bombs of Allied forces that had severely damaged the production facility on the Baltic island of Usedom.
Out of an estimated 60,000 prisoners taken to the camp between October 1943 and April 1945, at least 20,000 died from overwork, disease, abuse or bombings.
Prisoners were slowly and intentionally starved in order to break spirits and quell resistance. Meals consisted of black bread and water for breakfast, no lunch, with thin cabbage soup and an occasional potato for dinner.
When prisoners first arrived, they were more or less healthy. They worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week building tunnels and a bunker for the factory. Running jackhammers, tying rebar and pouring concrete were jobs for new arrivals, but as they lost strength—usually within three months—workers were given less-taxing work, such as moving debris away from the site.
“When you arrive, you are strong, but after a few months you are not,” Coli said. “You worked, you died and more people came along. The trucks would come every day and take away the dead.”
The workers wasted away to skin and bones. There was no medical care, not even a bandage; no showers, lice infestations and Coli wore the same clothes for a year. His shoes wore out and he was fortunate to find a scrap of gunnysack to wrap around the remains to help protect his feet.
“They chewed us up; people died every day,” Coli said. “People died of tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia … I was lucky.”
Amos Coli (right) in the streets of Pisa with an uncle after the war.
Under such horrible circumstances, what could possibly keep someone alive?
“Survival: I was young and physically strong,” he said. “You’d get so weak you couldn’t feel anything. Food was our main concern. The dirt didn’t matter.”
Coli hung on to whatever he could to keep going as he watched people weaken and die around him.
He found that a pile of dirt in a field near his barracks was for growing potatoes, so he contrived to retrieve a small portion of food and a bit of hope.
“I took a chance and went out in the moonlight and tried to reach for a potato. My hands were frozen it was so cold,” he said. “I brought them back to the barracks and we cooked them in a can. I only did it twice. It was very dangerous.”
Eventually, three of his neighbors died and in April 1945, the Germans began a large-scale evacuation ahead of the final Allied push to end the war. But the prisoners were not being freed, they were being taken to Dachau in order to “destroy the evidence.”
“They put us in animal cars, but when the Allies bombed the train I jumped off and ran into the woods,” Coli said.
He spent two days hiding from the Germans and listening to explosions as the final battles raged around him. When Allied troops found him, the 5’10” Italian weighed a mere 65 lbs and was days, if not hours, from death.
“They gave me a shower and sprayed me with DDT to get rid of the lice,” Coli said. “I was losing my hair from malnutrition.”
He was treated in Erfurt Hospital from April 17 to May 3, 1945 and was released to go home.
After the war, he returned home to Italy and went to work to support his mother. He found a job working on the railroad, manning a road crossing.
He briefly toured Germany hoping to come to grips with what happened.
“When I came back from Germany, I was out of my mind,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the destruction: In some towns there was nothing left. When I think about it, it was unbelievable what you saw. Skeletons walking; the kids become like zombies.”
Members of his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1900, so in February 1948, his uncle in California sponsored him to enter the U.S.
Coli turned 21 the day he boarded the ship for Ellis Island.
When he arrived, the first thing they asked was if he was willing to fight for the U.S. He responded that he had just survived a war and a labor camp, but they signed him up for the draft anyway.
He moved to Santa Clara in 1951 and found he had two German neighbors who went to Holland to get away from the Nazis.
“When we talked, we thought nothing of it,” he said. “They were nice people and we’d get together with a Russian neighbor.” There would be Russian food, Jewish, German and Italian.
He met a “nice little red-haired girl” named June, married her and moved to San Jose. They were married 62 years until her death in 2011.
When he became a resident, Coli was drafted for Korea, but June became pregnant, so he was reclassified and never called to service. After that, he became a U.S. citizen.
His uncle owned an Italian restaurant and taught him to cook and after two years he went to work for his uncle’s friend at Vahl’s Italian Restaurant in San Jose for the next 38 years.
He moved to Forestville to live with his daughter Christine Huemer after June died.
Ten years of silence
For a decade after the war, Coli was unable to talk about his experience, not even telling his wife or daughter.
“I went to Las Vegas with my wife and there were some Germans outside of the elevator. Hearing the language set me off,” he said. “I told her about it but never all the details.”
Huemer heard hints of it throughout her childhood, but did not know the full details until Coli opened up to her husband Bill decades later.
“When I was 10 or 11, we had neighbors that were German Jews and I overheard a conversation where she asked him not to wear a certain shirt because it reminded her of an SS uniform,” Huemer said. “He said he felt the same way about the German language, so they stopped speaking German around him.”
Coli is willing to talk about it now, offering his insights as a cautionary tale about the danger and horrors of war.
“You split with people and lose humanity,” he said. “I think of all the people that died for no reason at all….”
But Coli also thinks there are important takeaways too.
“Do it now,” Coli said. “Tomorrow is too late. You say you are too busy, but then you get sick and you die. Put away the telephone and take time for yourself and your family,” he concluded.
The In the News Discussion Group meets every Thursday from 10-11:30 a.m. at the Sebastopol Area Senior Center, located a 167 N. High St. Sebastopol. Call 829-2440 for details.
From World Aids Day to Kwanzaa, both religious and secular
By David Abbott
Sonoma Seniors Today Editor
While we all know about the big, high-profile December holidays, there are a plethora of additional celebrations throughout the month, some mainstream or regional, some religious or secular, and some that are just plain wacky.
The world over, the month is chock full of major and minor holidays celebrating the births of religious icons as well as random, offbeat events marking important anniversaries, everyday items or activities and even underappreciated foodstuffs.
From the serous to the mundane, December has a holiday for everyone.
The menorah has been part of Jewish religious holidays for centuries.
For the more traditionally minded, depending upon ones religious bent, Chanukah or Hanukkah takes place this year from Dec. 12-20, followed by the big one in Anglo-American culture, Christmas on its usual Dec. 25, where family members, for the most part, sit around, eat and watch professional sports while the kids and grandkids tear open presents, leaving a big mess in the living room.
That’s not to mention the now three-months long lead in to Christmas, where “big box” stores like Costco and Wal-Mart set out decorations and offer Christmas specific items before Halloween has even passed.
Although not as mainstream as the two heavyweights, Kwanzaa (Dec. 26-Jan. 1) has made inroads during an extended period of multicultural interest. Both Hanukkah and Christmas have ancient roots that date back to prehistoric times, but Kwanzaa, an African-American and pan-African celebration of family and culture, dates back to 1966.
According to officialkwanzaawebsite.org, the holiday was established by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, as a way to bring African-Americans together as a community. The weeklong holiday combines aspects of several different harvest celebrations, and includes songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, candle lighting and a large traditional meal.
While the three larger cultural holidays happen toward the end of December, the month kicks off with an Islamic celebration, the Prophet’s Birthday—Malwed or Milad un Nabi in some iterations—celebrated in multiple countries around the world, from the Philippines to India and Asia. The date is reserved for discussion, prayers and reading the Quran, serving food to friends and family, and giving to the poor.
Grav Mass Day is a celebration of Sir Isaac Newton’s birthday.
But the secular holiday season goes into full swing early as well. For instance, Portugal celebrates its independence from Spain in a 17th century war that ended with the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668. Likewise Kazakhastan, Romania, Ghana and many other countries have celebrations of nationalism or independence. Dec. 1 is also World AIDS Day.
In the United Kingdom, one can celebrate Small Business Saturday, which began in 2013 on the heels of the success of Small Business Saturday in the U.S. The day is meant as a means to support locally owned businesses by spending holiday cash in the community.
In order to get dressed up for the holiday season, there are clothing-related days such as Wear Brown Shoes Day, Put on Your Own Shoes Day, Ugly Sweater Day, and of course Christmas Jumper Day.
Those with a nontraditional bent can enjoy the holiday season with National Mutt Day; celebrate No Interruptions Day by enjoying Christmas Card Day, Thank You Note Day and Weird Letter Writing Day uninterrupted, and learn more about food that nobody eats with Noodle Ring Day. And for dessert, top it off with what could become everyone’s favorite, Chocolate Covered Anything Day on Dec. 16.
The microwave oven even has its day.
Other food-related holidays include Eat a Red Apple Day, Fritters Day, National Roast Suckling Pig Day, Bicarbonate of Soda Day or National Bacon Day.
On Dec. 5, Repeal Day, one can lift a toast—legally—to the 21st Amendment that ended Prohibition.
More serious holidays include Advent, Boxing Day, which began in the United Kingdom when wealthy citizens would give special boxes of food to their servants, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Finally, for those who want to end the year on a positive note, there is always Make Up Your Mind Day, a day set aside to quit wavering, take a side, follow through with a decision and stick to it.
Based on lists from holidayscalendar.com and holidayinsights.com with information from www.timeanddate.com.
Festivus: A holiday for the rest of us
By David Abbott
Sonoma Seniors Today Editor
The advent of the television age has altered the way we look at many aspects of American life, creating cultural markers, syntax and other phenomena that we use in everyday life, often without thought to their origins.
The same can be said for December holidays.
To that end, many people celebrate Festivus, a television-inspired holiday that takes place a few days before traditional Christmas.
Although Festivus does not have deep cultural roots dating back to the dawn of civilization, many can relate to its foundational tenets as a response to the commercialization of a Christmas “season” that has grown to encompass a larger portion of the yearly calendar and seems to be gaudier with the passing of time.
The roots of Festivus can be traced back to Dec. 18, 1997, the date NBC aired “The Strike,” an episode of the critically acclaimed sitcom “Seinfeld,” which gained a nearly cult-like following in the latter part of the 20th century.
Although the episode centered on the antics of bizarro character Cosmo Kramer and his brief stint working at a bagel shop, the plotline followed the rather painful holiday traditions of character George Costanza.
In opposition to all the attendant glitz of the holidays, the Costanza character’s father, Frank Costanza (played by comedy legend Jerry Stiller) created his own secular holiday and called it “Festivus for the rest of us.”
The Festivus celebration included the Holiday Pole, an unadorned aluminum pole that acted as the antithesis of the Christmas tree that was the centerpiece to the family dinner, which traditionally consisted of meatloaf and spaghetti.
A traditional Festivus Pole.
The painful part came after dinner with the Airing of Grievances, wherein all family members took turns stating what they did not like about each other and how they have been disappointed throughout the previous year.
Feats of Strength pitted family members and guests against one another in a wrestling match. The holiday did not end until the head of the household is pinned.
The final tradition was the exclamation of miracles. Literally anything could be proclaimed a miracle, followed by the exclamation, “It’s a Festivus Miracle!”
“Seinfeld” scriptwriter Dan O’Keefe provided the impetus for Festivus, as his father Daniel O’Keefe, a writer and editor for Reader’s Digest for 30 years, created the holiday in 1966 to commemorate his first date with his wife Deborah.
The O’Keefe family Festivus differed with the television version in that it took place at a random time sometime from December to May—the first was in February 1966—dinner featured ham or turkey, and instead of the holiday pole, the senior O’Keefe placed a clock in a bag to be hung immediately after dinner.
Daniel O’Keefe never explained the reason of this to his family.
Dec. 23 was chosen at random as the date of the celebration, as that was the Thursday following the date the episode aired.
In the ensuing decades, Festivus has taken on a life of its own as an alternative or supplement to the stressful aspects of the holiday season. It has appeared randomly throughout American culture from books on the subject (“Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us,” by Allen Salkin), to political props such as when, in 2005, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle was declared “Governor Festivus,” displaying a Festivus Pole in the family room of the Executive Residence in Madison.
In 2012, a Festivus Pole was officially erected next to religious displays in the Wisconsin State Capitol, along with a banner provided by the Freedom From Religion Foundation advocating for the separation of government and religion.
And the following year, a Festivus Pole built with beer cans was erected next to a nativity scene at the Florida State Capitol Building, as a protest supporting separation of church and state.
A sampling of international holidays, both mainstream and unusual
The following is by no means a complete list of December holidays, but it contains a wide range of examples from all over the world.
Christmas, Boxing Day, St. Stephen’s Day, Yule, December Solstice, Kwanzaa (until Jan 1), Chanukah/Hanukkah, Advent, Eve of and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Bodhi Day, Dhanu Sankranti, Holy Innocents, The Feast of St. Ambrose, Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Hallmarks and human rights:
International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development, Father’s Day Thailand, Day of Goodwill, International Human Rights Day, Jane Addams Day (Mother of Social Work), International Civil Aviation Day, Wright Brothers Day, International Migrants Day, International Human Solidarity Day and Abolition of Slavery Reunion.
Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, National Guard Birthday in the U.S., Constitution Day in multiple countries.
Pretend to Be a Time Traveler Day, Official Lost and Found Day, Day of the Ninja, National Mutt Day, Microwave Oven Day, Free Shipping Day, Dewey Decimal System Day, Grav Mass Day, A’phabet Day or No “L” Day, Card Playing Day, Underdog Day, Monkey Day. Make a Gift Day, St Nicholas’ Eve and Day, World Soil Day, National Youth Day in Albania, International Anti-Corruption Day, International Mountain Day, Arabic Language Day, Turkish Language Day in Macedonia.
Wear Brown Shoes Day, Ugly Sweater Day, Put on Your Own Shoes Day, Christmas Jumper Day.
Fritters Day, National Roast Suckling Pig Day, National Brownie Day, National Cupcake Day, National Cookie Day, Date Nut Bread Day, Eggnog Day, Chocolate Covered Anything Day, Noodle Ring Day, Pepper Pot Day, Gingerbread House Day, Bicarbonate of Soda Day, National Bacon Day.
Monday, Oct. 9 did not dawn like any in Sonoma County’s history, as a firestorm enveloped much of the north and east, destroying entire neighborhoods and businesses in its path from Calistoga to northwest Santa Rosa.
Volunteers stepped up to help in the COA kitchen during the week of Oct. 9 as fires ravaged much of north and east Santa Rosa.
But elderly residents still had to eat, so the kitchens of Council on Aging went full steam ahead despite the hardships of volunteers and employees alike.
“I received a call from Alyssa (Kutzer) at 3 a.m. asking me if I knew what was happening in Santa Rosa,” COA President and CEO Marrianne McBride said. “I was out of town at the time and she told me all of Santa Rosa was burning up.”
As McBride carefully made her way back, Kutzer and several other COA employees found themselves evacuated from their homes, some never to return.
On Monday, food deliveries were impossible but the doors opened as a temporary shelter and COA helped provide meals to the Red Cross that helped feed a rush of evacuees. A generator provided electricity, but there were no telephones or internet and cell phone service was spotty at best.
On Monday, night McBride sent out emails to gather enough staff and volunteers to get meals out to clients on Tuesday. Through the concerted efforts of COA and county employees, as well as many volunteers, 600 meals were delivered Tuesday and even more on Wednesday. The Meals on Wheels program delivers about 1,000 meals on any given day.
“We’re really short staffed and onsite staffing was at about 70 percent,” she said. “But they were all helping with food. We delivered as many meals and as much information as we could and checked on the status of our clients.”
McBride credits Head Chef Carrie Holwell for keeping the kitchen going and getting the food out. “Carrie was amazing. She had challenges, but stepped up and held the kitchen together.”
Holwell was filling in for Charles Lindner, Director, Senior Nutrition Services and Kitchen Operations, who lost everything in the fire. Lindner called her early Monday to tell her what was happening.
“He was watching his house burn, and said Santa Rosa was on fire,” said Holwell, who lives in southwest Santa Rosa near Wright Road and Sebastopol Avenue. “I tried to come to work, but sat in traffic for an hour.”
She eventually made it to the facility on Kawana Springs Road, unsure of what resources, staff or volunteers might be available.
“It was pretty nuts,” she said. “Nobody knew anything. We had two volunteers who lost everything and I have no idea how they did it. It was so courageous.”
Holwell set about her tasks with as positive an attitude as she could muster to try to keep an upbeat atmosphere in the kitchen.
“I’m trying to make everyone as comfortable as possible,” she said. “In such a devastating time, it’s tough to get a smile. But we’ve done an amazing job.”
The meals prepared on Tuesday were cold in consideration of people who might not have electricity. Holwell also oversaw preparation of 4,000 meals, twice the usual number, in order to “get ahead of the game.”
MOW drivers went out to see what was accessible and the program miraculously continued without much of a hiccup.
“We pulled off a miracle,” Holwell concluded.
By Wednesday, there was enough of a crew to staff the kitchen, pack and deliver meals amid an outpouring of support from the community in the face of the ongoing disaster.
From young volunteers to seasoned COA employees, the feeling of solidarity with those who lost everything was palpable in the kitchen.
Fourteen-year-old Jadon Keller, whose grandfather, renowned local chef Josef Keller, often works with COA, was on hand to pitch in that Wednesday, despite being evacuated from his home. But his house was still intact, so he wanted to help others survive the ordeal. It was also a way for him to make sense of what was happening.
“It has helped working here (during the crisis),” Jadon Keller said. “I worked here over the summer, but wanted to come in to help.”
Miguel Perez has worked for COA for 16 years, longer than young Keller has been alive. His home on the outskirts of the Coffey Park area survived, while many of his neighbors were burned out.
Longtime COA employee Miguel Perez was on hand to help keep things going in the kitchen during the week of tragic fires,
“They called me and said, ‘come to work,’ and I thought it was important to do,” he said. “Everybody has come to help from cooking to bagging lunches: it’s been good.”
On Thursday, volunteer driver Dave Robertson was set to deliver to the Rincon Valley/Maria Carrillo neighborhood and didn’t know if there would be anyplace to deliver. The fire came within 2.5 miles of his home on the west side of Fulton Avenue, so he was able to avoid evacuation.
“I have a lot of trailer parks on my route, so I feel for those who lost everything in the fires,” he said.
Even newer employees, such as Timothy Kitchen, who was recently homeless, saw returning to work and helping to feed area seniors was about more than just coming to work. Kitchen began working at COA in mid-September in hopes of stabilizing his life.
“I am so happy to be working at COA. I’ve been staying at the Rescue Mission, and now I’m saving to get a place,” he said, adding that in the wake of the catastrophe in the region, “It’s nice to see people coming together. I expected the worst but am seeing the best.”
The remote dining sites and Bistros shut down Monday, but COA offered what it could to any senior who showed up at a senior center looking for a meal or homebound person it was able to reach.
“We served delicious soups, sandwiches and salads and had a lot of people from Santa Rosa who were in transition,” Terri Condon, manager of the Sebastopol Area Senior Center dining site, said. “Some had lost their homes and others were waiting to find out.”
Timothy Kitchen was one of the COA employees able to step up to keep the food moving out of the main facility the week of the fires.
The Sebastopol Bistro was closed Monday and Tuesday, and served a limited menu as the emergency continued through the following week. Condon hopes to get the Bistro back to its regular service on Monday, Oct. 23 (after press time).
“We didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “But people were happy to come in and get out of the smoke. Everyone has been wonderful.”
All in all, it was a difficult task to keep the food going out and to keep spirits up in the face of such losses for friends and coworkers, but everyone worked together in support of each other any way they could.
McBride said she too expects the food programs to be back on track by Oct. 23.
“This tragedy has permeated everything and everyone feels a little sick, if you have any empathy at all,” she added.
To contribute to Council on Aging, go to councilonaging.com and scroll over the “How to Help” tab. A drop-down menu will direct you to our donation and volunteer pages. Use the credit/debit card option or mail a check to Council on Aging Services for Seniors, 30 Kawana Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, California 95404.
Multi-pronged outreach led by Area Agency on Aging
As its population ages at an accelerated rate, Sonoma County is staying ahead of the curve, investing time and resources into addressing the needs of LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) seniors, a highly unique population.
“While LGBT seniors face the same challenges of aging as all Sonoma County seniors, they have added concerns resulting from a lifetime of discrimination and lack of recognition of same-sex relationships,” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman, and former Council on Aging Chief Executive Officer, Shirlee Zane said regarding the recent efforts.
In February, the county announced its commitment to increase resources to area senior centers and has set in motion a competency training program for local agencies and non-profits serving senior citizens, led by the Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging (AAA).
The effort comes during a multi-year period marked by stepped-up awareness and a mandate from the state to include LGBTQI populations in long-term planning.
The Older Californians Equality and Protection Act, enacted with the passage of AB2920 in January 2007, “requires all California State programs and services for older adults specifically address the concerns of LGBT seniors.”
It further directs the California Department of Aging to provide technical assistance to area agencies on aging to serve the unique needs of LGBT seniors.
“That requirement helps us and helps a lot of AAAs justify the need to focus on this population, although I’m sure it doesn’t need additional justification,” Gary Fontenot, Human Services Section Manager, Department Adult and Aging Division said. “We recognize that it’s a minority population with a unique set of needs and has to be considered differently in some ways.”
According to the LGBT+ National Aging Research Center, an estimated 2.7 million adult Americans ages 50 and older self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, including 1.1 million ages 65 and older. By 2060 that number is expected to exceed 5 million, and those numbers reflect in Sonoma County’s population as well.
The senior population in Sonoma County is currently 25 percent and growing and according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, the county also has the second-highest number of LGBT couples in California.
AAA leads the way
Guiding the effort is a 21-member advisory council to the AAA that both advocates for the needs of seniors in Sonoma County and make recommendations on how to distribute Older Americans Act funding for programs and services such as congregate meals, Meals on Wheels, legal services, case management and adult day services.
“It’s all overseen by California Department of Aging,” Fontenot said. “We have to report to them directly how we’re running our AAA and they come and audit us.”
The cultural competency training began two years ago with the aid of an $11,000 grant from the LGBTQI Giving Circle Fund of the Community Foundation of Sonoma County and the Sonoma County Human Services Department Adult and Aging Division.
“It bubbled up from our staff to a great degree about the need to do better training around LGBT competency and developing resources for older adults,” Fontenot said. “We serve about 8,000 older adults through our agency and see the spectrum of that need through all the social workers that work in our agency.”
The county matched the grant funding and contracted with Nancy Flaxman, a Marin County-based consultant and trainer to provide initial training to COA, Petaluma People Services and Sonoma County Human Services staff members. The training proved to be so successful it was expanded to area senior centers, the Vintage House in Sonoma, the Sebastopol Area Senior Center and the Finley Center in Santa Rosa.
Additionally, the county enlisted the services of Gary “Buz” Hermes, a longtime LGBT rights advocate, to lead a series of eight-week sessions, Aging Together With Pride, which gave area LGBTQI seniors an opportunity to discuss the difficulties of aging after a lifetime of discrimination or hiding their true selves to avoid discrimination.
“I began studying research into longer life and applying it to LGBT, weaving it into life review and life repair,” he said. “The forum offered the opportunity for people to talk about discrimination and how families treated them.”
Evolution of advocacy
Hermes, a Sonoma resident, has lived a life shadowed by difficulties because of his sexual orientation.
The Napa native has been beaten, fired from jobs and even ordered to register as a sex offender by the draft board when he was just 18 years old.
He began his life of advocacy in the 1980s, starting a gay forum at the Centers for Spiritual Living and helping people with HIV/AIDS receive supportive services.
In 2009, with the help of a grant from Spectrum LGBT Center in San Rafael, Hermes co-organized three groups of “LGBT Elders” in Napa, Santa Rosa and Sonoma.
The groups provided a gathering place for elder LGBT residents and became a social center featuring tea dances, walks, lunches, holiday parties and other activities to help reduce isolation, a problem many seniors face that is even more pervasive in the LGBTQI community.
But in 2012, local advocate Gary Shepard, who led the Sonoma group, died, leaving a void that was exacerbated by the grant running its course.
“It was hard: The grant ran out and Gary died,” Hermes said. “He was an inspiration in Sonoma and the group didn’t want to see it die, so several of us volunteered to keep it going.”
Fast-forward to 2017, and Aging Together With Pride has evolved into Aging Gayfully, a Santa Rosa Junior College Older Adults Program offered at senior centers in Sonoma, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.
“Aging Gayfully evolved from Aging Together With Pride,” Hermes said. “I want to go into the physiology of aging and staying involved, creating community and forming supportive networks.”
Isolated LGBT seniors
The LGBTQI population presents unique challenges for local service providers. Many efforts, including Meals on Wheels and AAA’s senior transportation program, are aimed at reducing isolation in seniors, a major concern particularly for residents in the more remote parts of the county.
Isolation is even more prevalent in the LGBTQI community, many in which have trust issues in general, but are even more wary of governmental service providers.
“If you got fired from your job for being gay in 1960, that’s an experience you carry with you and you carry a certain amount of distrust about accepting services, perhaps, or trusting a government official,” Fontenot said. “They are much less likely to access services because of the discrimination they have experienced over the years.”
In addition to the training, AAA hosted three receptions to invite LGBTQI seniors to share ideas about programming that would bring them to local senior centers. And discuss what can be done to improve quality of life as they age.
“They expressed a need to feel welcome,” Zane said. “We also took action by launching the LGBT information and assistance program through the Sebastopol Area Senior Center.”
What it all came down to, though, was helping LGBTQI seniors connect, both with services and with each other to reduce the chances of complete isolation as they age.
“What impressed me is there is a huge need for LGBT seniors to connect,” Hermes said. “When we were younger, we went to the bars and created our own groups, but most of us don’t have blood family nearby, so isolation is a big obstacle.”
But progress comes at a monetary price that has mostly been covered by grants from government and advocacy groups. But as the grants run their courses, programs such as Aging Gayfully show that the move to inclusivity may be taking on a momentum of its own.
“Even a relatively small grant can create a big ripple effect,” Fontanot concluded. “Aging Gayfully is actually a ripple effect from this grant.”
Live auction item won at Derby Day unexpectedly becomes inspirational life changer
First night camping featured a spectacular view of the Sierra Nevada.
What do you get when you mix a group of five inexperienced women with backpacks that weigh one-quarter their weight and 20 miles of trails in the Stanislaus National Forest?
“The transformation in six days was amazing and I could not have been more impressed,” Alyssa Kutzer, Council on Aging’s Director of Development said. “They became my heroes in that week. I feel honored to know each and every one of them.”
The group takes a break in the Emigrant Wilderness on a backpacking trip won at the Derby Day silent auction.
The wilderness adventure was offered by Kutzer as a live auction item from Derby Day, one of the biggest fundraisers of the year hosted by Council on Aging. The event celebrated the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby and benefits the Meals on Wheels program that helps to feed isolated seniors throughout Sonoma County.
Participants Meredith Freed, who won the trip, Leeann Vieron, Lisa Rogers, Kelly Neronde and Susann Mischke ranged in age from 34 to 53. Four members of the group are ER nurses at Memorial Hospital, save Neronde, who is a flight nurse for REACH in Sacramento.
“I’ve never bought an item like that, but saw how Alyssa described the trip and knew it was an amazing opportunity to try backpacking,” Freed said. “I knew I could find five other adventurous, tough, and smart women to come with me, and I did.”
The trip began with a night of camping at an elevation of 8,600’ on a bluff overlooking the Sierra Nevada mountain range at Gianelli Cabin Trailhead in the Emigrant Wilderness outside of Pinecrest, California.
“We were all nervous, but more excited,” Freed said. “Alyssa really has a passion for it and her love for nature made us eager to get out there.”
Over the course of the next few days, this group of intrepid women would learn how to make a comfortable camp, complete with a “Flintstones table,” cook gourmet meals, and they even survived a night that featured a mountain lion visiting camp.
The famous “Flintstone table” complete with a floral centerpiece.
Trepidation and excitement marked the first day’s hike, a 6.3-mile jaunt to Y Meadow Lake. All but Mischke had no backpacking experience, so the first day was spent acclimating to the altitude, steep terrain and the weight of packs.
“There was a ‘plan B’ in case we were unable to make it, but all of the girls rallied,” Kutzer said. “They were absolutely thrilled with the lake and almost immediately jumped into the icy water to wash off and cool down.”
Neronde’s wife provided the group with homemade muffins for the first morning, as she thought this would their last “real meal” for six days.
But little did the group realize that Kutzer, a longtime, passionate wilderness backpacker, had many culinary surprises in store for them.
“Everyone thought we would eat minimally for the trip and the food would taste like cardboard: Little did they know we would be eating like queens,” she said. “I really dislike the MRE’s (meals ready to eat) they sell at [camping stores], so I’ve been dehydrating homemade meals for a long time.”
Kutzer spent months making and dehydrating food, including barbecued hamburgers with sweet potato buns, pickles, grilled mushrooms and onions; homemade chili with fresh cornbread; Joe’s Special breakfast; and even Moroccan lemon chicken for dinner one night with dessert every night. It was accomplished at only 1.3 lbs of food per person per day.
“We even made fresh bread using a rehydrated watermelon rind as the cooking vessel that we set directly on the coals of the fire,” Kutzer explained.
Bread baked in a watermelon rind.
The food was served on tables built out of granite gathered at the campsite, complete with wildflowers Vieron collected as a centerpiece.
Toe Jam Lake, a 4-mile hike, was the second day’s destination, and by then women felt more comfortable with their packs and roles setting up tents, filling water bladders to filter and collecting firewood. The night featured chocolate cake baked in re-hydrated orange rinds and fishing in the lake.
On the third, a day hike to Leopold Lake was capped with stunning views of Half Dome and there was even cell reception. After checking in with loved ones, the group ate lunch, collected white quartz and swam in the icy water.
But the real excitement came at about 3:30 a.m. on the fourth day when a mountain lion entered the camp that did not seem to be in any hurry to leave
“A lot of noise was made to scare him off; whistles blown and a large bonfire built,” Kutzer said. “He finally sauntered off. It was a little scary but all were safe when daylight finally arrived.”
By the last two days of the trip, everyone was more comfortable with the rigors of hiking and each had naturally assumed roles in the daily activities associated with setting up camp and building a Flintstones table.
At one point, Neronde yelled, “Who builds a table when backpacking?” to which the women responded in unison, “we do,” and they all high-fived at a job well done.
“It was awesome and we had such a good time,” first-time camper Lisa Rogers said. “I’d never been backpacking or even camping before and Alyssa was the perfect guide. We didn’t shower for a week, but I can’t describe how great it was having all women in the group: It was all positive and very empowering.”
There were also no conventional toilets.
The final day was spent hanging around camp, sleeping in the hammock, swimming, reading, playing cards and exploring the area around the lake.
Leeann Vieron and Meredith Freed.
There was even an impromptu ceremony by Vieron, who made awards for each person in what they had excelled at most during the trip.
“I watched these women go from being nervous about being in the wild, not knowing how to set up a tent, build a fire or purify water, to becoming confident, overcoming fears, carrying more than 30 lbs of gear, setting up camp on their own and so much more,” Kutzer said. “This shows that, young or old, you can overcome fears and conquer challenges.”
To Freed, the experience was challenging, but well worth it. Pushing up a hill with a 30 lb pack, looking out over a clear mountain lake, was an experience she won’t soon forget.
“It’s hard to describe just how incredible the trip was,” Freed said. “Being able to disconnect from a cell phone and work and focus on the simplicity of nature and what you had to do to make that day a success was a gift. Alyssa was an awesome leader and really gave us all such an experience.”
Longtime Sebastopol resident Ruth Halleck—“Noni” to her 67 grandchildren and great-grandchildren (and one great great-grandchild)—wanted to ride on a rocket for her 90th birthday, but Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic project has not kept up with the trajectory of her life.
“I wanted to go into space on my 90th,” the matriarch of the multigenerational Sonoma County family said. “I’m on Richard Branson’s list and I email him from time to time—but his ships keep crashing.”
Since Sir Richard did not step up, Halleck accepted an offer from Santa Rosa Shoes, donned a space suit, and took off in the Apple Blossom Parade on a float created by the iconic shoe store.
The parade went flawlessly, with no crashes or other mid-air mishaps, but the experience was a mild one for a woman who regularly outdoes herself in the birthday celebration department.
For her 85th, Halleck took 150-odd friends and family members to Infineon Raceway to watch her drive a racecar at more than 100 miles per hour.
“I asked how fast the car would go and [was told] 190, but they would only let me go 140,” she said. “I spun out in the mud, but the spinout was the coupe de grace.”
On her 80th birthday, she jumped out of an airplane for the first time.
“I was jealous because George H.W. Bush beat me to it,” Halleck said. “But we had 150 for our party at a pizza parlor and brought in a belly dancer from New York for entertainment.”
But monumental celebrations of her life are not the only high points of her life, as Halleck has literally lived from “horse and buggy days” to seeing men walk on the moon.
Throughout her long life, she has been a model, a pilot, a successful businesswoman, and she was even fired from a department store by Barry Goldwater two decades before he ran for president.
“I graduated from high school at the age of 15,” Halleck said. “When I went to get my Social Security card, I told them I was 16. I went to work at the ribbon counter at Goldwater’s in Phoenix, but when they found out I’d lied about my age, Barry Goldwater called me and personally fired me.”
Halleck was born in Lincoln, Neb. in 1927. Her grandfather owned the first car in Lincoln, a 1912 Ford Touring Car he bought for $700 that he eventually sold for $100,000. Her family moved to Phoenix, Ariz. when her father was diagnosed with cancer.
During WWII, she worked as a dispatcher for civilian planes, where she met a lot of famous people, including Errol Flynn, Gene Autry and she once had dinner with John Payne, known for his role in “Miracle on 34th Street,” among others.
After the war, she married Sebastopol native Ed Doty and they built the house in Sebastopol Halleck lives in to this day. The couple eventually divorced and Doty moved to Hawaii and remarried.
At the age of 42, Halleck began modeling and bought the June Terry School of Modeling in Santa Rosa. Modeling was a natural calling for the 5’10”, trim and classically beautiful Halleck, and she took to it like a fish to water, training generations of young Sonoma County women on the finer points of standing up straight and walking properly.
Around that time, she also became a chaperone for the Miss Sonoma County Pageant.
It was there that she met Council on Aging President and CEO Marrianne McBride.
“I met Ruthie in 1976 when I ran for Miss Sonoma County,” McBride said. “I became enamored with her energy and zest for life. She was an older woman at that point who I totally looked up to and admired. She was so beautiful and elegant and someone you could look up to and aspire to be as you aged.”
But that is not Halleck’s only connection to COA. Her granddaughter Alyssa Kutzer is COA’s Director of Development.
“It’s amazing years later to have Alyssa,” McBride said. “I had no idea they were related and when Alyssa told me it just blew me away.”
During her time with Miss Sonoma County, Halleck met then-governor Ronald Reagan through her work with the Miss California Pageant and Big Brothers of Sonoma County, and she also spent time at Bohemian Grove, where she was a popular figure.
“I dated quite a few of them when I was single,” she admitted. “It wasn’t a job, but I was single and modeling.”
Throughout her career, Halleck was in a lot of different businesses. She owned Hap’s Hangar Restaurant at the Sonoma County Airport and Kozy Katz dress shop in Rohnert Park.
“I used to go in early to light the fires in the kitchen, and go to the dress shop after waiting tables,” she said.
She was also an acrobatic tap dancer, has an extensive Barbie collection—she owns the original Barbie doll—and paints eggshells.
“I spent two years making eggs for the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta,” Halleck said. “I made about 700 eggs of varying sizes, but when they found out the licensing fee would have cost $1 million they killed the project.”
But all in all, Halleck has lived a life for which she has no regrets and is humbled by the changes she has seen.
“At 90 years old, I have lived through more changes in the world than most people,” Halleck concluded. “I was born during the horse and buggy days and saw men walk on the moon.”
As to why she has lived as long as she has with as much vigor as she has lived, Halleck does not credit lifestyle or genetics, but something more esoteric.
“The secret to my longevity is God’s will,” she said. “I can’t think of any other reason.”
She has no plans for the 95th or 100th birthday celebrations, but if Richard Branson is listening, it’s time to get that rocket off the ground.
Losing one’s sight can lead to a range of emotions normally associated with grief, including denial, anger, bargaining and depression, but in the end, with a little bit of help, acceptance can finally be attained.
“It pissed me off. I was very angry at first,” Jan Seeley, a volunteer at the Earle Baum Center (EBC) said. “There are different emotional levels when you lose your sight. One part is denial and I was there big time.”
Seeley, 81, began losing her sight about 20 years ago, when she developed glaucoma, but it was on a plane ride home from India in 2011 that she contracted an infection leading to the loss of vision in one eye.
She’s always led a high-energy life, running the customer service department at Sola Optical during her career; yet despite spending her corporate life in the eye care business, she never dreamed she would need the services EBC has to offer.
“The first day [at EBC], I didn’t think I should be here,” Seeley said. “But I was, and then realized Denise [the instructor] was blind and another blind woman was knitting, so I thought, ‘you are in the right place; it’s time to change your attitude.’”
In the ensuing five years, Seeley has learned to reorganize her life around her disability and remained active as a volunteer, leading the EBC volunteer steering committee and participating in classes.
The instructor Seeley met on that first day is Denise Vancil, the EBC Independent Living Services Instructor, who teaches living skills such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and other aspects of day-to-day living in her introduction to vision loss.
Vancil has been at EBC since its beginning in 1999. She was the first teacher hired at the center, and has devoted her life to helping people learn how to function once they lose their vision.
She comes to her calling after decades of living without the use of her eyes, which she lost as an adolescent—the victim of a rare birth condition that she said affects about one in 10 million people.
In kindergarten, she found she couldn’t read the blackboard in class. Her parents did everything they could to help prepare her for losing sight, ensuring she knew how to use a cane and read Braille. Despite several surgeries, she lost sight at the age of 13.
“One day I woke up and everything was orange and bright lights,” Vancil said. “My retinas detached and within 72 hours, I was totally blind.”
According to Vancil, the toughest thing was not learning new things, but the way people treated her once she became blind.
“Interactions with others was the hardest part,” she said. “People treated me differently: talking really loud, despite my hearing not being affected. It’s confusing to people, and they [tend to] treat all disabilities the same.”
Although she has lived a life full of adventure, traveling the world in her youth, Vancil has had to arrange her life around her disability and still struggles living in a world where even getting to work can be a challenge.
“On a day-to-day basis I have two kids to raise—an 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter — and my husband Ben is also visually impaired,” she said. “We moved to the SRJC neighborhood even though it was not our first choice, but it’s the only place in Santa Rosa with an elementary, middle and high school that are close together.”
Thanks to help from her family members and a workplace that specializes in providing service for the visually impaired, Vancil has access to the latest information and technology that she imparts to students who come to the EBC to help make their lives less daunting.
“A lot of our clients think our services are only for the blind, but they come here and realize that we teach techniques to help enhance their lives,” she said. “The hard part is getting them hooked.”
Since she had several years with full vision, Vancil has “sight reference,” which helps her relate more to the world around her, understanding things like color and generally what people and things look like.
“It’s a struggle with someone who has been blind from birth, like explaining colors: I can’t tell them what blue or green looks like,” Jeff Harrington said. “They don’t have those associations and no visual memory. It’s a different framework.”
Harrington, Assistive Technology Manager and an instructor at the EBC, began losing his own sight at the age of 12 and has spent the past 17 years helping clients deal with vision loss. He does that with the help of technology and a large dose of patience.
Harrington, who grew up in the Santa Cruz area, began to noticeably lose sight as a youth playing Little League baseball.
“I was trying out for the pony league and I was jumping around when the ball came toward me,” Harrington said. “My dad asked me what was the matter.”
Doctors thought he had an infection, but by the time he was 13 or 14 years old, they discovered he had glaucoma.
Glaucoma causes a buildup of fluid in the eye, which puts pressure on the optic nerve and can eventually kill it.
Despite about “40 or 50 surgeries,” Harrington eventually lost his sight completely over a 10-year period.
Fortunately, he earned a degree in occupational therapy from San Diego State University before he lost his sight, so he had something to fall back on professionally.
At EBC, he helps students use adaptive equipment and electronic devices. Although there is not a good time or way to go blind, technology is helping people lead more productive lives, while reducing isolation.
“There is probably not a better time to be blind with the technology that is available: there’s Siri and email readers; you can turn on your GPS and figure out where you are and there are the chirpers and tweeters at stoplights.”
But the most important thing is a support system that helps maintain equilibrium when one of the most important senses no longer functions.
“Having a supportive family can be huge,” Harrington said. “Sometimes, they can be fearful and overprotective. I was lucky because when I came home with scrapes, my mother would tell me that’s life and it’s going to happen. You have to be allowed to make mistakes.”
Seeley calls the EBC “the best kept secret in Sonoma County,” and said that it is an important resource that should be tapped before someone goes completely blind. “There are so many people we can help before they lose their sight,” she said. “I found that I can live independently with happiness and joy in my life and didn’t have to be a little old lady stuck in the house.”
For more information on the Earle Baum Center’s services, go to www.earlebaum.org or call the center at 523-3222
By David Abbott, Associate Editor, Sonoma Seniors Today
With the use of pharmaceutical drugs on the rise, the chance of negative and unintentional drug interactions has increased as well, particularly for seniors with diminishing cognitive and bodily functions.
Misuse of prescription drugs, intentional or not, can lead to dangerous side effects, such as overdose or critical drops in blood pressure, which carry ancillary problems such as falls and other issues.
According to Sonoma County Health Action, an initiative created to improve community health launched in 2007, “Nearly every eight days, a person in Sonoma County dies from an accidental drug overdose. Prescription drug use and misuse is a large contributing factor to this problem.”
Therefore, medication management is important for older adults with more than one prescription or reduced cognitive abilities. There are several management options, from hired professional help to online medication dispensing systems that can be remotely operated by a trained and licensed professional.
“One thing we see that is so common is that when Adult Protective Services gets involved and sends [us] in to assess a situation, it is not uncommon for a nurse to see a shoebox full of medications,” At Home Nursing owner Diane Brabetz said. “Sometimes, it takes hours to go through them all.”
At Home Nursing provides licensed home care to seniors and works with the county to provide both non-medical and skilled nursing needs.
Brabetz said that many of the clients she serves have multiple medications and often they are the same drug with a different name or expired drugs that have accumulated over time and were never properly disposed of.
“The average age of our homecare clients is 83 and it’s amazing how many meds they have and how little they know about them,” Brabetz said. “They don’t know the side effects or that some are different names of the same thing.”
She related a story of a client who had multiple falls after a short hospital stay. “We reviewed his [blood pressure] meds and found he had the same prescription from three different [hospital] departments,” she said. “He kept taking them and kept falling.”
Brabetz said she was able to figure out the situation, adding that it is important to be vigilant when working with multiple medical departments or agencies to avoid such problems.
Colette McGeough, Senior Health Initiative Coordinator for the Sonoma County Health Services Department, said that isolation and aging are factors that can exacerbate the problem of “polypharmacy.” “
As home visiting RNs, we find medication management is a huge problem for many seniors,” she said. “Even when there are no opioids…many isolated seniors frequently have poor medication management skills. When opioids or other central nervous system depressants are added to the mix, altered mentation, balance etc. occurs, which leads to over- and under-use of the medications.”
McGeough added that overdoses can happen when pharmaceuticals build up in aging bodies through physiologic changes that alter the way medications are absorbed, metabolized and excreted “due to changes in the gastrointestinal tract, the liver or decreased renal dysfunction.”
Often, a senior already taking multiple medications will go to an emergency room for pain after a fall and will receive pain medication. When the senior returns home, they will often add that medication to what they are already taking, which can increase the potential for another fall that can be critical.
“The fall/injury potential increases tremendously,” McGeough said. “The next fall episode may result in hip fracture, more pain— more meds—loss of independence and so the cycle continues.”
She added that assessment tools are improving, particularly with the implementation this year of Sonoma County’s Safe Opioid Prescribing guidelines, but monitoring of multiple medications should be a priority for any senior.
“It is also very important to let our seniors know that even though there is an increase in opioid abuses and overdose within the county, seniors still need to have their pain issues addressed and treated appropriately,” she said. “Pain always requires effective treatment and management, otherwise it can cause other debilitating side effects such as depression, elevated blood pressure and poor quality of life.”
To reduce the dangers of poorly managed prescription drugs, McGeough advises contacting Sonoma County Health and Human Services for guidance and communicating with the family provider.
Brabetz suggests planning as a strategy, including setting up medications in multi-day or weekly increments and creating a list for medical providers and family members and one to keep on hand in case of emergency.
“I encourage people to make a medication list so they can have it on hand,” she said. “It has to be current at all times. If you go to the hospital, you have to have it with you. It can have a far-reaching impact.”
By David Abbott, Associate Editor, Sonoma Seniors Today
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