In Wealthy Santa Clara County, Peer Advocates Help Struggling Seniors

As a Senior Peer Advocate in well-heeled Santa Clara County – home to many Silicon Valley fortunes – Donna L. Weisblatt shared this shocking observation about the region’s hidden underbelly: “The number of people bringing in less than $1,000 a month and needing to find housing.”

Weisblatt, a 71 year-old former educator and business owner, has been a peer advocate for seniors since the program’s public rollout in early 2012. During that short time she’s seen the many personal and financial challenges facing older adults.

“The desperate ones are those who are being evicted and need a place to stay so they don’t live on the street,” she says.

More than 15,000 Santa Clara county seniors live in poverty, taking home less than about $900 a month. And one in four older adults – nearly 50,000 seniors – live “near poverty” – less than twice the federal poverty level. When factoring in the true costs of living in this expensive area, nearly half of the county’s older adults are considered impoverished.

The Senior Peer Advocate program – or SPA – was spawned by the Santa Clara County’s Aging Services Collaborative of Santa Clara County in hopes of connecting seniors with essential services — in particular affordable housing and transportation.

Some also need help with food or utilities, while others seek assistance with caregiving for themselves, a parent, or grandparent.

“The goal of the program is to try to keep seniors independent as long as they can and as healthy as they can,” says Billie Jean Sgarlato, 68, who has been a senior peer advocate for the past four months.

The SPA program places trained volunteer advocates in 12 senior centers and other locations throughout Santa Clara county for a handful of hours each week.

It’s based on a highly successful initiative in the neighboring city of Fremont called CAPS – Community Ambassador Program for Seniors.

“We like the fact that the CAPS program was successful at reaching the ethnic population,” says Lori Andersen, who supervises SPA for The Health Trust, which launched the program as part of its commitment to improving health in the Silicon Valley region.

So far the program has served over 2,000 older adults via 29 senior peer advocates — Andersen terms 20 of them “active.”

This target age, she adds, responds far better to face-to-face meetings than online searches or phone calls.

“The peer-to-peer assistance and information was a good way to reach this population,” she notes.

As of 2010, the older adult population in Santa Clara county was more than half white, over a quarter Asian, and about 13% Latino. Minority seniors face much greater levels of poverty.

With curriculum purchased from Fremont and customized for local users, advocates undergo four days of training in older adult services.

They cover topics such as dementia, family caregiving and – perhaps most important – proper listening skills. In a peer session, often the original concern turns out to be a smokescreen for a larger one.

“Maybe the presenting problem isn’t what’s most urgent or important,” says Andersen.

Sgarlato describes one elderly woman who wanted to find a new home for her pet. With gentle probing, Sgarlato found that the client also needed a home for herself.

Advocates-in-training also spend half a day scouring a local database of aging services maintained by the Council on Aging Silicon Valley.

Although they advise in many ways, there are a few areas they cannot tread: they can’t fill out benefit forms for social services, or drive for clients.

Santa Clara County operates OUTREACH, a sophisticated transportation system for the elderly, poor and disabled, that uses private cars and vans.

“It’s easier to get a trip to a medical appointment than it is to shop,” says Andersen.

Some issues – such as elder abuse – are escalated to program supervisors.

While the SPA concept is a progressive one, Andersen readily admits that it’s a work-in-progress.

Her “wish list” is extensive. The SPA advocates need to be promoted better within the community facilities. More funding is needed to expand the program to add a case manager to supervise difficult cases. Most importantly, she says, some SPA volunteers are “not as active as we expect them to be.”

Sgarlato, a former human resources director for hospitals and tech firms in the Bay Area, agrees.

“It takes a quick and agile mind to figure out how to help an individual in the shortest and most direct way,” she says.

Andersen is optimistic about improving SPA, citing a five-year plan to assess similar programs nationwide, explore new options, and expand the program.

Sgarlato agrees.

“Catch us a year down the road,” she says.

Meanwhile, the most coveted help is often the simplest.

“What I find amazing is that everyone has a story,” says Weisblatt. “Sometimes all they really need is someone to listen to them.”

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