COMMENTARY: Seniors invested in King County; now it’s their turn

COMMENTARY: Seniors invested in King County; now it’s their turn

We are getting older – not just each of us individually, but the whole community. The number of older adults in King County grows every year, and by the year 2040 nearly a quarter of us will be at least 65 years old. With urgency, we are acting now to improve and promote healthy aging for everyone.

Healthy homes and habits, and social engagement, are keys to a longer, more fulfilling life. That is why I called for new funding for services and housing supports for older adults in the newly renamed Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy (VSHSL). That ballot measure, approved in 2017 by the voters of King County with more than 68 percent of the vote, provides funding to support our local senior centers, boost housing development, fund no-interest loans for housing repairs and disability accommodations, and offer other services to support older adults and their caregivers.

The first step was to offer grants to local programs so they could upgrade their facilities, increase outreach to isolated seniors, and improve accessibility for persons with disabilities. In 2018, King County awarded over $3.5 million to 38 local senior centers countywide with funding from the VSHSL. Using that funding, our senior centers made needed facility improvements like installing automatic doors for people using wheelchairs and walkers, hearing loops for seniors who need help hearing, laying non-skid floors for restrooms, and other accommodations to keep people safe and ensure access for all. Centers also used the one-time funding to improve and upgrade technology systems and services or enhance the skills and expertise of their staff by providing focused training on areas of elder care. Still others are building outreach and programming to be able to reach seniors in rural and unincorporated areas and those for whom English is a second language to reduce isolation and build social and community connections. 

This year, we shift our focus to transforming a number of senior centers into hubs that become the recognized place for older adults and caregivers in a particular geographic or cultural community to access resources, engage with their communities, and experience healthy aging. The hub model will rely on partnerships and community collaborations to expand the capacity of senior centers to provide outreach to older adults who are isolated, and to broaden opportunities for older adults from traditionally marginalized and underserved communities, such as older residents who identify as LGBTQ, older immigrants, and elders of color. The strategy to develop senior hubs is a five-year commitment, averaging $3.7 million per year. The competitive request for proposals process opened in March 2019, with services expected to launch in July.

Another strategy that supports seniors includes the re-launch of the Geriatric Regional Assessment Team, or GRAT. This is a program unique to King County that establishes a team of experts who can provide in-home behavioral health assessments and consultation for older adults who are at risk of losing their homes or facing institutionalization due to complicated behavioral health or cognitive issues.

We are also working to build housing security for seniors. We must join with our partners to build and preserve more affordable housing throughout the region. We will use some levy funding and funding from other county sources, such as the document recording fees and transit-oriented development funds, as well as funding from city, state and federal partners to help create the housing we need, particularly for low- and very low-income residents. We are also working with our King County Housing Repair Program to help local seniors and senior veterans to make repairs or disability accommodations so they can remain safe and stable in their own homes for as long as possible. 

Our local seniors built this region. They worked in our factories, built our cities, cared for us in our hospitals, grew our food on our local farms – and many still do. Like my own parents, who are retired teachers, they taught the next generation. They served our country in World War II, in Korea, in Vietnam, and in the Middle East. In so many ways, they built the foundation for the economic strength our region enjoys today. Thanks to the voters of King County, we have funding and tools to help make sure that those who built this place can continue to live in this place with dignity and security.

Dow Constantine is the King County Executive.