Flexing Muscles: 70 Strong

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Line Dancers celebrate at the 70 Strong kickoff in Redwood City. Photo: Matt Perry.

Several years ago and approaching 60, Lee Michelson sat in a large conference room contemplating aging, health and longevity as he listened to a fascinating presentation with 200 other California healthcare district executives.

The talk: “Blue Zones.”

Blue Zones are those rare communities where residents live healthier and longer lives, the result of nine factors that include good food and close community ties. Loma Linda is one of only a handful of Blue Zones worldwide, with its tight-knit Seventh-day Adventist community that emphasizes a vegetarian diet free from alcohol and other mind-altering substances.

Coincidentally, residents in Blue Zones are also among the happiest anywhere.

So Michelson had an idea. He decided to create a Blue Zone within the Sequoia Healthcare District where he serves as CEO.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the area features an aging populous that mirrors the rest of San Mateo County, where 70 and older is the fastest growing demographic.

Michelson knew there were already plenty of resources available for older adults – everything from exercise classes to energy assistance – but finding them was often impossible.

And he was very particular about the new outreach strategy. Program information had to easily available online, by phone or in person. And it had to be decidedly non-bureaucratic.

“If I hear about anybody being transferred I’m going to create holy hell,” he told his team. “Here’s the number for Meals on Wheels, and I’m going to call them with you.”

A “navigator” would even come out to your house, meet you in person, and help you find what you needed.

“We wanted it to be as human as possible,” says Michelson.

Last week, 70 Strong launched with a lively party in Redwood City where Michelson – who had just turned 64 – explained Blue Zones to the assemblage.

“The one thing they had in common was the ability to emotionally and socially connect with the community and one another,” said Michelson. “You’re going to see people, and they’re going to see you.”

“We live in a community with great social services, but many people don’t know where they are,” says Heather Cleary, executive director of Peninsula Family Service, the district’s partner hired to implement the program.

“This is a direction we need to go,” says Lisa Mancini, who heads aging and adult services for San Mateo County. “We need community to care about community. Government can’t be everywhere.”

At the launch, the hall was rimmed with tables hawking everything from Senior Softball to gardening, pickleball, senior peer counselors, adult coloring and the lecture series “Maturing Gracefully.”

Why 70?

“When you lose employment you lose a lot of your social contacts,” says Michelson. “And then you stop driving and that makes you more isolated.” Add the death of a spouse or siblings and the situation can spiral out of control.

With a budget of $800,000, Michelson knew he had to deliver something of quality far beyond merely referrals – especially since the Sequoia Healthcare District, which serves central and southern San Mateo county, is taxpayer funded. He singled out Peninsula Family Service for its excellent tracking and evaluation tools that reveal what’s effective and what isn’t.

The site was created in English and Spanish. Google Translator was then employed so the site is now offered in 21 languages that broaden the reach of the 70 Strong community.

“You’re going to hear that word a lot,” Michelson told the crowd. “Community.”

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