John Payne, a 62-year-old living in Kings Beach for almost 16 years now, was failed by the Truckee/North Tahoe region’s lack of senior services — that’s what Michelle Okashima believes. Payne is retired and currently lives on full disability resources due to a back injury.
Okashima is the owner of Hot Diggity Dog & Cat, a pet supply store in Kings Beach. Payne walked by her store regularly and the two struck up a friendship.
This past March, Okashima realized she hadn’t seen Payne in a while.
“The last time I saw him, he had mentioned that things weren’t quite right, that his roommate was messing up his room, but I didn’t really understand what that meant, the severity of it at the time,” Okashima told Moonshine Ink. “When I didn’t see him, I went to check on him and bring him food for his cat and his dog. When he cracked the door open, the smell hit me, and I forced him to open the door.”
Payne had been sharing his 15-square-foot apartment for three months with someone, who paid no rent and was struggling severely with mental illness. According to Payne, the situation was caused by a misunderstanding among Placer County caseworkers. Garbage was piled 3 feet high, holes were punched in the walls, Payne had cigarette burns on his body, his ID and social security card had been stolen, and he’d suffered a ministroke from the stress of the situation. Despite five calls to the police and pleas to caseworkers to visit his apartment and rectify the situation, Payne says no one ever laid eyes on his living space.
By the time Okashima entered Payne’s apartment, the roommate was gone, having been moved to Auburn by caseworkers, but the effects lingered. “I was going to give up,” Payne recalled, who at the time was too weak from his stroke to improve the state of his apartment, which Okashima described as “like something that you see on the worst case of Hoarders [a TV show].”
Okashima put out a call to action on social media with a list of needs for Payne — clothing, furniture, décor. “Within two days I received everything that I asked for,” she said. Using funds from the nonprofit Tahoe Neighborhood Table, on which Okashima serves as a board member, local handyman Mike Cunningham was hired to clean out Payne’s space.
Okashima’s main goal was to provide Payne (and his dog and cat) with a safe and inhabitable living space. What came along with that goal, she discovered, was realizing Payne — and his former roommate — had both been failed by a system.
The situation had caught the attention of Meals On Wheels volunteers, who drive around the region, providing meals to older adults struggling with food security. Payne said several reported his state of affairs to Placer County’s Adult Protective Services (which responds to reports of abuse or neglect of elderly or dependent adults), but nothing was done for months. Due to health privacy laws, APS declined to comment on the specific situation.
“We need to start checking in on each other because we are losing people, we’re losing people that would have had more of a support system prior to Covid and the loss of our community,” Okashima said. “I really want to get information out so that hopefully even if it touches one person’s life, if somebody notices something and knows how to contact the right people, then it’s worth it.”
Payne is currently participating in weekly sessions with one of the Placer caseworkers. He also continues to receive Meals On Wheels drop-offs.
Thriving in the Truckee/North Tahoe area isn’t easy for anyone; it’s even harder for the older population. The senior members of the community — as well as their advocates — are frustrated by the absence of attention on their plight, so they’re doing something about it.
“There is a real lack of senior services, not just in Truckee, in the whole North Tahoe area,” said Sharon Romack, executive director for Sierra Senior Services, which runs Meals On Wheels. No senior center to offer programs and activities at a central location, no assisted living facility, no veteran support.
Sierra Senior Services is headquartered rent-free in the Truckee Donner Senior Apartments, which is the only dedicated senior living center in the Truckee/North Tahoe region and Romack says the unmet need is obvious. There are 60 apartments within the Truckee Donner Senior Apartments; and around 130 people on the waiting list. The most recent person to move into the complex — in June — had applied for a space in 2014.
“The apartments are for independent people who are still mobile and still have cognitive functioning,” Romack said. “But when someone decreases in their physical abilities or mental abilities, they have to go to Reno or Eskaton Village in Grass Valley. There is nothing here in the area.”
Per the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2021, 15% of Truckee’s population was over the age of 65. In Incline Village, as of the same year, 23.5% of its population is over 65. Tahoe City, Tahoma, and Kings Beach are too small to be recognized by the census, but datausa.io, a visualization website compiling government data, listed nearly 18% of Tahoe City; 9% of Tahoma; and about 12% of Kings Beach as over 65.
“I think our community is so driven toward serving tourism and also serving locals who live here because of the lifestyle,” added Paul Bancroft, executive director of Sierra Community House, which offers a range of social services under one roof. “That can tend to exclude other populations, other groups of people, and I think one of those are in particular is our senior population.” Bancroft added that the Sierra Community House does offer such services as crisis intervention and hunger relief, which local seniors do utilize.
As John Lilly, a Truckee Donner Senior Apartments tenant, pointed out, many of Truckee/North Tahoe’s seniors came up for that lifestyle decades ago; they’re the OGs: “All the people [at the senior apartments], you would find a good percentage of ‘em came up in their 20s. They went to work for the ski industry or the raft company and they decided to hang out.”
Those still hanging out are gaining momentum.
Jesse Griffin has lived in the area since the 1980s: Tahoe City for about 20 years before moving to the Truckee Donner Senior Apartments in 2005, where she’s been ever since.
These days, at 72 years old (on the younger end, by senior apartment standards, because she’s under 80) with a head full of bright pink hair, Griffin spends much of her time championing the needs of her fellow seniors. She’s at the helm of the Christmas Wish Box program, which collects needs such as pet food, clothes, basic appliances, and more for the senior apartment tenants during the holidays; she has Sgt. Arnie Lopez and Emergency Services Coordinator Bob Womack of the Truckee police on speed dial when safety concerns arise; she even has a direct line to Portland, Oregon-based Jeff Passadore with Cambridge Real Estate Services, the property management company for the apartment complex.
In May, she started up the Old Farts Coffee Club on Friday mornings at the apartment complex. Stretches of June and July were and are devoted to building 22 collapsible shopping carts to help fellow tenants transport goods around more easily. And she’s actively pushing for the installation of an automatic generator in the Truckee Donner Senior Apartments community room, to provide power during emergency situations.
“We need to take care of our seniors,” she said. “We have worth.”
A new senior housing project, known as the Estates Meadows Housing Development, was approved by the Town of Truckee Planning Commission on May 17. The project will be across from the current senior apartments, subdividing that parcel across Estates Drive and constructing 30 affordable senior housing units. Cascade Housing Association, which owns the Truckee Donner units, will also own the proposed apartments.
In December, two seniors in Truckee, Phillipa Nigg and Charlene Simmons, approached the Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District to propose solutions to what they saw as the isolation of Truckee’s older residents. Four months later, the newly created Golden Meet and Greet (aka G-Mag) held its first meeting and a whopping 90 people showed up. G-Mag is a weekly senior social that includes food and drink, plus a speaker or activity for attendees to participate in.
“No cost, no commitment,” Sven Leff, recreation superintendent at TDRPD, told Moonshine in May. “You know you’re going to know somebody or you’re going to meet somebody … Come hang out and make Thursday mornings your time.”
Sierra Senior Services is seeking a new office space, including a larger kitchen. Money being raised — $175,000 and counting — through efforts like Alpenglow Sports Winter Speaker Series is specifically designated for a move or remodel. In the meantime, the hot meals delivered via Meals On Wheels are also being distributed in sit-down settings in Truckee and Kings Beach to those who want food and companionship.
Additionally, the nonprofit has bridged its services with the Tahoe Forest Hospital: When patients 60 years or older are released, they’re asked if they need assistance with food. If the answer is yes, they’re connected with Meals On Wheels.
The Tahoe Forest Health System provides a slew of service programs for seniors, including Heart to Heart (a medically supervised exercise program), Pritikin cardiac rehab, Silver Age Chair Yoga, chronic disease self-management training, health coaching, chronic care management, and post-acute care. Hospital staff performed a survey for seniors last year to determine gaps in the community. The needs identified in order from the 649 responses were exercise opportunities, transportation, affordable housing, home maintenance, socialization, and future assisted living. Community gaps recognized included a senior center, transitional housing, and a geriatric pharmacist. The plan with that information, explained Director of Case Management and Care Coordination Karyn Grow, will “be utilized in strategic planning for future programming.”
Placer County’s board of supervisors has reached a tentative agreement with the Placer Public Employees Organization to bolster Tahoe-area subsidies for Adult Protective Services workers. Currently, six workers cover all of Placer County, though Placer Public Information Officer Katie Combs-Prichard informed the Ink that staffing coverage has met the needs for reports received by APS to date.
Romack views the rural mountain community Sierra Senior Services covers as the forgotten part of the counties they’re based in. On May 25, she shared as an example, Placer County put on a senior resource fair in Kings Beach. “They brought all these organizations up from Auburn and it was wonderful, and everybody got all excited,” she said, “[yet] none of them were available in eastern Placer County on this side of the hill.”
Barriers like that example, she continued, are why a reckoning is needed for seniors in the Truckee/North Tahoe region.
“Why do we want to support seniors?” Romack asked. “Because you know what? You want to stay here. You want to grow old here so you can continue to enjoy the mountains. Who’s going to bring your meal? I just don’t think people put it together that someday they’re going to need these services too.”