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Staying Connected After 50

Author: Juliet Porton
December, 2014 Issue

Staying mentally and physically active can help seniors stay connected to their communities.

At 50, many of us are still in the busiest part of our lives, with work, family and friendships competing for our limited time and attention. Often, it isn’t until a major life shift occurs—like a divorce, retirement or the children finally leave the nest—that we realize it’s time to pull ourselves out of the same old activities to rediscover who we are and who we want to surround ourselves with in our next phase of life.
Whether we’re looking for a romantic companion or simply the company of people with similar interests, it can be hard to meet new people. Nevertheless, research shows it’s critical to our physical and emotional health as we age that we make the effort. Fortunately for us in the North Bay, we have some amazing opportunities (and people) just waiting for us to take that first step.

For the intellectual

If you’re one of those who dreams of going back to college to be a perpetual student, you’ll feel right at home in one of the classes offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Sonoma State University (SSU). Even better than college, though, these courses have no prerequisites, no grades and no tests.
As one of the first of more than 100 such programs in the nation created and funded by the Bernard Osher Foundation, SSU’s program serves about 1,500 students per year, all age 50 and above. Fifteen courses are offered in each of three terms during the school year, with limited programming in the summer. Nine are held on SSU’s main campus in Rohnert Park, with three per term at Villa Chanticleer in Healdsburg and three in Oakmont at either the Berger Center or East Rec Center.
Carin Jacobs, director of OLLI at SSU, says courses are chosen both for how well the topic will resonate with students and how well they match the program’s main curriculum tracks, such as the arts, world cultures, natural sciences, social and political history, and food and wine. Classes, each with between 60 and 120 students, are taught by current or retired faculty from SSU and local junior colleges or other local experts who’ve proposed course ideas to the curriculum committee.
“This is really a discerning crowd in terms of students,” says Jacobs. “They’re largely highly educated, well-travelled and have high standards on how they want to spend their leisure time.”
Most courses are lecture-based, but, over the years, students have initiated further opportunities to meet and socialize with each other. These informal “interest circles” have taken the form of weekly brown-bag lectures (for those interested in science) and group outings to local museums. OLLI has also been coordinating a growing number of workshop-based courses that are more interactive and discussion-based, like creative writing or art instruction, in which students share their work in a more intimate setting.
“I think [OLLI] is almost as much about the community building and the social fabric of the program as it is about the intellectual stimulation,” says Jacobs. “There are those who’ve been here since the first day of programming, which was in September 2001. They’ve known each other, travelled the world together and become close friends.”
OLLI’s winter session will begin January 12 and includes courses on the Phoenician civilization, science fiction and the 100th anniversary of the Great War. An open house for prospective students will be held on December 8 on the SSU campus, on December 9 in Healdsburg and December 10 in Oakmont.
For more information, visit
(Note: Dominican University in San Rafael has a separate, similar OLLI program. For more information, visit

For the competitor

Held over two weeks every summer, the Sonoma Wine Country Games brings together athletes ages 50 and over for both individual and team sport competitions throughout the county. Rigorous sports like track and field, tennis and swimming are well represented, but so are bowling, golf, bocce and pétanque. Last year, 1,250 athletes took part in more than 15 categories, with most competitions divided by age. Not all participants view themselves as “athletes,” though—at least not at first. Some have been dominating the basketball court their whole lives, but others haven’t made a three-pointer since high school gym class.
“Some people have been involved in sports for a long time and are looking for a place to compete,” says Amy Crabb, director of development for Council on Aging (COA) in Santa Rosa, which coordinates the event. “Some have watched their kids leave home and are figuring out who they are again and how they want to be defined. We also have people who’ve never seen themselves as athletes, but want a new group of friends to hang out with.”
While many friendships have been formed during the two weeks of competition, the real community behind the games often forms during the other 50 weeks of the year. Most people come to the games through a sport-specific club or training organization, like the Santa Rosa Badminton Club, Healdsburg Masters Swim Club or the Analy Legends basketball league. The COA can assist new competitors in either finding a partner or team to compete with or, even better, a club to begin practicing with.
“Once you’re in a group, you’ll find people who are interested in the same thing and really start to enjoy spending quality time with them,” says Crabb. “It’s not just about playing the sport, but for social events, coming together when people are in need, and creating community within small groups of athletes.”
The next Wine Country Games will take place June 4 through 14, 2015, but it’s not too early to check out the games’ offerings and start practicing. If you’re still unsure, Crabb says, organizers rely on 200 volunteers each year, so helping out at an event can be a wonderful opportunity to meet other volunteers and athletes while checking out the action firsthand. You may find your competitive streak coming out in no time.

For the nature lover

Is your idea of a good time lacing up your hiking boots to explore all the world-class trails we have right in our own backyard? If so, the popular hikes organized by local chapters of the Sierra Club will soon have you communing with nature and other like-minded souls all over Northern California.
The Sierra Club is a nationwide organization that encourages people to come together in their communities to learn about and advocate for environmental causes. All memmbers are considered part of the national group, but can also connect with their local chapters, such as the San Francisco Bay Chapter (covering Marin, San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties) or the Redwood Chapter (covering Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano, Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte, Trinity and Siskiyou counties). Each chapter sets up its own schedule of outings and activities, which are then open to members of any chapter, and to nonmembers, as well.
Bob Solotar of Richmond has been a Sierra Club member since the early 1970s and a volunteer hike leader for the San Francisco Bay Chapter since the early 1980s. He says people come to the hikes looking for all different kinds of experiences.
“Some people are doing it for the exercise and want to really hike,” says Solotar. “Some are more interested in being outdoors and just enjoying the wildflowers, with others somewhere in between.”
Looking at the club’s calendar can give you a pretty good idea of what’s in store, as hikes are graded by length and elevation, and hike leaders write up descriptions to guide hikers on whether or not the trip is for them. The leaders choose the route and the general pace, and may describe one as moderate with many stops or as “a hearty hike but not for the speed demon or gazelle.”
“My standard line is: Don’t judge all hikes by any one hike,” advises Solotar. “Every hike leader is different and has his or her own way of doing things, so you might get one impression of club outings from one leader and a totally different impression from another.”
The San Francisco Bay Chapter also supports several special interest activity sections orientied toward specific demographic groups, such as singles, including the Solo Sierrans and the Sierra Singles. Solo Sierrans meets for hikes, camping and other social events, with most participants age 50 or above.
Though the group’s hikes take place all over the Bay Area, from Sweeney Ridge in Pacifica to Armstrong Woods in Guerneville, Solitar says his most popular hikes are usually those in better known places—the “headline parks,” such as Muir Woods, Mount Tamalpais and Point Reyes.
He agrees that these friendly hikes can be a good way to meet other active, involved people. For instance, on one recent hike, he found out that a regular member was leaving to move near her now-fiancé—whom she’d met on a similar Sierra Club hike a year earlier.


For the social butterfly

Maybe you’re somebody with too many interests to count on one hand, or maybe you’ve yet to find a true passion pursuit in life. Consider checking out, where you can take your pick of events from a long list of social opportunities you may have never known existed.
Though technology-based, isn’t about conversations in chat rooms or virtual friendships. It’s a social networking site that helps people schedule and organize their own interest groups and find groups near them. All you need to do is visit the site’s main page and type in your ZIP code to see a selection of Meetup groups that have already been formed.
The site has been around since 2002 and has almost 19 million members in 176 countries. It makes its money by charging a small fee to the group’s online administrator, so you may be asked to chip in a few dollars to join. The group’s landing page provides most of what you need to know, such as event dates and times, the purpose of the club and whether it’s geared toward people of a certain age, gender or activity level.
Browsing the listings, you’ll soon see there’s something for everyone. In Napa County, you can find groups interested in speaking Italian together, insight meditation and ukuleles. Marin County has groups dedicated to sailing, raw foods and chocolate tasting. The Marin Singles Hiking, Dining and Social Club welcomes locals who are unattached and aged 40 to 60 for a hike and a bite to eat.
The Sonoma County Fifty Plus Singles Meetup group, formed in 2011, gathers regularly at concerts, restaurants and happy hours. The Senior Walkabouters Hiking and Adventure Group (SWAG) and Sonoma County Boomers Social Club 50+ are also great places for those over 50 to start. Or, you can check out groups for kayakers, swing dancers and home beer brewers. Don’t see anything that looks interesting? Start your own—you may soon find yourself in good company.

The Social Network

We all know physical activity is a key component of staying healthy, but remaining socially active and engaged may be just as important. A 2014 study by the University of Chicago found that loneliness can increase an older person’s chance of premature death by up to 14 percent, twice the impact of obesity. By continuing to build up our social networks and expand our interests, we’re significantly upping our odds of living longer, happier lives.
Shonnie Brown, M.A., is a licensed marriage and family therapist with an office at Chinn Street Counseling Center in Santa Rosa. She’s also the founder of Sonoma LifeStories, working with people to turn their memories into permanent family keepsakes in the form of written vignettes or book-length memoirs. She’s seen first-hand what can happen when people are caught emotionally unprepared for the types of big life changes that happen to all of us.
“So many women and men, particularly those who’ve always worked, don’t know what to do with themselves once they retire,” says Brown. “This is one of the main reasons I see older people, especially men, who are anxious and depressed.”
Just as we need to prepare our finances to support us in our later years, we also need to plan ahead to ensure we’ve built a life full of the types of relationships and activities that will prevent us from feeling isolated. Brown suggests joining interest groups, becoming part of a local senior center or senior community and volunteering regularly before you retire, so the transition goes more smoothly. Some people will also want to think of ways they can continue to use their talents to earn money, perhaps working part-time.
While women can also face a loss of identity and direction when they retire or lose a spouse, Brown feels they may be better equipped than men to handle the changes. She says women often have an easier time making friends, expressing their creativity and jumping into doing new things.
“Men aren’t encouraged in our culture to have a wide circle of friends and are often emotionally and socially dependent on their spouses,” she says. “One thing I highly recommend for both men and women as they get older is to widen their circle of friends, so they’re not just counting on their spouses for daily structure and activity.”
Most important, don’t put off envisioning and preparing for the life you want to lead in your 70s, 80s and beyond, thinking that it’s too far off or completely outside your control.
“There’s such denial in this country about aging,” says Brown. “People don’t want to plan for it because they don’t want to believe that someday they’ll be old, too. We need to realize that aging is normal, and that people can stay vital and interested all their lives.”

Need More Ideas?

Tuesday Night Flicks at the Napa Valley Opera House
The Napa Valley Opera House plays host to a monthly film series that puts the “class” in classic movies. On the last Tuesday of every month (unless a holiday interferes), movie curator Richard Miami offers a quick introduction to a screen gem and the stories behind it before the curtain rises. You can check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-nominated Foreign Correspondent on January 20 or the aptly named Marx Brothers classic A Night at the Opera on February 24.
Book Passage Events
Book Passage in Corte Madera is well-known as an independent bookshop built for browsing, but it’s owners Elaine and Bill Petrocelli’s commitment to literary community-building that makes this place such a cultural treasure. Their writing classes, author lectures and food and wine events are full of people eager to discuss the latest popular novel with you.
San Rafael Goldenaires
Join this active group for those 62 and over, which meets at the San Rafael Community Center, and you’ll never have an excuse to say you’re bored again. The Goldenaires’ calendar is filled with regular luncheons, dances and movie outings, as well as day trips like recent ones to the theater in San Francisco, the beach in Santa Cruz and to tour the new Levi Stadium in Santa Clara.


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