West Sacramento city hall and van

EDITOR'S NOTE:  A chance meeting last spring with officials from West Sacramento, California, led to a discussion on how a like-sized city to Mansfield, but in a different part of the country, is trying to improve the quality of life for its aging population. Today's installment is the first in a three-part series on that question as part of our Gray Matters project. Part II will be published on Dec. 13. Part III will be published on Dec. 14.

When the city of West Sacramento decided to get serious about age-friendliness, its first step was counterintuitive.

It did away with its commission on aging.

The city’s partners at AARP were shocked, and a little horrified, Mayor Christopher Cabaldon recalls. That is until Cabaldon and his staff explained their motivation for slashing the commission.

While the commission was well-intentioned, it had evolved in to an entity with limited effectiveness.

“A lot of the time, the commission was having discussions about, say, whether it should be Bingo or Canasta on Thursday nights at the senior center,” Cabaldon said. “It didn’t have much say about, ‘What should be our housing strategy?’ or ‘How wide should the new streets be?’ or ‘How much emphasis should we place on walking versus driving?’”

Entities like the planning commission, the transportation commission and the housing commission were making the city’s high-level decisions.

Meanwhile, important issues and ideas that came up in the aging commission often were discussed and then never seen again.

So instead of having a separate aging commission, Cabaldon composed an age friendly task force that included one commissioner from each of the high-level commissions. Those representatives now advocate on behalf of seniors as major decisions are made.

The city simultaneously renamed its parks and recreation department, which also runs the city’s senior center. The department is now called Parks, Recreation and Intergenerational Services, and a greater emphasis is placed on providing services for residents across the lifespan.

“So we haven’t lost that discussion about Bingo versus Canasta,” Cabaldon said. “That still happens in its place, but it no longer is a substitute for the broader policymaking around the full range of issues our diverse set of seniors are facing.”

Immediately, city leaders noticed a difference in the way decisions were made.

“Almost immediately, the city’s policies and zoning rules were updated to reflect age-friendliness,” Cabaldon said. “Our most recent comprehensive plan pays more attention to things like, ‘Is this boulevard too wide to cross if you’re not moving at a high speed as a pedestrian?’”

With walkability, as with other issues the task force has taken on, West Sacramento leaders have discovered overlaps between what makes a city age-friendly for older adults and what makes it livable for children, young adults and families.

For West Sacramento, age-friendliness has become a twin issue with another initiative city leaders call the West Sacramento Home Run, which is about making the city the best place it can be to grow up in or raise a family.

Both initiatives are funded in part by a levy the city uses for all kinds of things that make West Sacramento more livable for all ages, like pothole repair and smart city technology.

“If you make the community more livable for people who are 80, then it’s also more livable for people who are eight, and everybody in between,” said deputy mayor Jon Robinson.

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