Prime Living

Council on Aging brings action, power to growing populace

By Paul Archipley | Sep 15, 2017

Senior. Retiree. Pensioner. Oldster. Golden ager. Old fogey!

People “of a certain age,” particularly the baby boomers who are entering that stage of life at the rate of 10,000 per day, aren’t sure what they want to be called. But, contrary to the sometimes distasteful stereotypes that society tags them with, many seniors are bound and determined to face this stage of life with optimism and hope.

Still, it’s scary. Questions are plentiful:

• Now that I no longer go to work every day, what am I going to do with myself?

• What quality of life can I expect on my reduced income?

• What if major health problems strike?

• What if I outlive my money?

Fortunately, there are citizens in Snohomish County who are working on those and other questions that seniors and people with disabilities face daily.

Among those at the forefront is the Snohomish County Council on Aging, a 30-member citizens’ board that advises the staff of the Aging and Disability Services Division, the Human Services Department and the County Executive.

Largely comprised of seniors themselves, the COA is primarily focused on making sure seniors maintain healthy lifestyles, whenever possible “age in place,” and, most of all, have a say in programs, policies, funding and other matters affecting the senior population.

This is not your typical once-a-month-meeting board (although they do) where volunteers show up, vote on agenda items and go their merry way.

Board members belong to one or more subcommittees where the real action takes place.

Take, for example, the Advocacy & Diversity committee. COA 1st Vice Chair Dennis Wheeler is a member of that committee. They act as lobbyists who meet with elected officials and bureaucrats at the local, state and federal levels, discussing senior-related issues, supporting and opposing legislation, and fighting for funding.

After retiring from a working life in the private sector, Wheeler said he wanted “to give back to the community,” and COA seemed like a good vehicle.

The Advocacy committee, he said, “gets results.”

“Two years ago, I probably didn’t even know what district I lived in,” Wheeler admitted. Now, he’s regularly meeting with elected officials and is surprised – and pleased – by how receptive they are to hearing about issues affecting seniors and people with disabilities.

“They’re very welcoming,” he said. “They tell us we do count. I’ve had them thank me for giving input.”

Another committee is Healthy Aging, which is tackling some of the most challenging issues seniors face. Dianne Klem, COA’s 2nd vice chair, is a registered dietician who also was looking for ways to contribute after retirement.

She said the COA seemed a good fit. “My goal for seniors is to stay independent in their community,” Klem said.

That means helping them stay as healthy as possible. The committee’s work includes planning an annual health forum. Last year, the focus was on nutrition and aging. Discussions included how to prepare healthy meals for one or two after the “nest” has emptied, and years of preparing big meals for many mouths are over.

This year’s forum, scheduled for Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, is titled “Let’s Keep Moving.” Professionals will discuss and demonstrate ways that seniors can keep themselves moving to help maintain their health.

One of the most visible panels, the Senior Centers committee, works with the various senior centers in Snohomish County on everything from programming to funding. Nora Todd, COA chair and one of the longest-serving volunteers on the council, said senior centers are expanding in all communities to meet growing demand.

“There’s increased isolation when you retire,” Todd said. “You get people who have outlived their family, their friends and their money.” Senior centers provide dynamic gathering places for people to make new friends, find new interests, and live full lives.

Finally, the Finance, Allocation & Evaluation committee (FAE) is responsible for advising on matters related to program funding and resource allocation to the county’s Long Term Care and Aging Division. Some of the most important programs available to seniors, including meals-on-wheels, transportation, legal services, elder abuse prevention, caregivers support, and social and health services depend on discretionary funding that is always less than needed.

To many who are dependent on some of these programs, it’s all but unthinkable, but chronic funding shortages could mean suspension or elimination of programs. Even meals-on-wheels could be on the chopping block if funds can’t be secured.

That’s why the COA’s work is so important. Todd, Wheeler and Klem agree it’s a challenging effort.

“It’s a learning experience at the speed of light,” Todd said.

But the satisfaction of achieving positive results makes the work worthwhile.

“It’s rare to have this opportunity to be involved at a level where you’re meeting people who are making a difference in people’s lives,” Wheeler said.

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