Diana Thompson: Advocate for Healthy Aging and Hearing Access
Members of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council for Aging & Disability Services (ADS) advocate year-round for local, state, and national programs that promote quality of life for older people and adults with disabilities in King County. I sat down with Advisory Council member Diana Thompson to discuss aging issues that matter to her and how serving on the Council fuels her commitment to making King County a great place to age in place. Our meeting took place online over Zoom.
Sariga (S): Thank you for talking to me today, Diana! I know you keep yourself busy, so grateful for this time together.
Diana (D): No problem!
S: Can you share a little about yourself? I’ve gotten to know you better over the last few years, but I’d love to know more!
D: Something not many people know about me is that, until I was almost five, I lived in Craig Colony, a New York state residential and medical facility for persons with epilepsy. My father was a dentist and at that time, medical personnel were required to live on the premises. The State provided us a cook, patients cleaned our home, and an iceman delivered ice to our home. After our family was allowed to live off campus, we moved to the town of Geneseo, where I enjoyed playing hide-and-go-seek in the cemetery, as my friend’s grandparents operated the cemetery. When I was eight, we moved to Rochester.
I’ve always enjoyed music and remember the delivery of a piano to our home when I was four years old. I was fascinated with the piano and begged my mother to get me lessons. When I was five, my mother found a teacher who said she would teach me, if my mother taught me how to read music. Thus, I learned to read music before I could read books. In high school I practiced piano at least an hour and half a day and flute for three-quarters of an hour a day. In the past I have played flute and piccolo in various musical groups in the Seattle area. Unfortunately, I believe flute and piccolo were the initial cause of my hearing loss.
S: Music definitely seems like an important part of your life—do you still play piano every day? What else do you do for fun?
D: I usually play piano for an hour daily. However, I haven’t played in about two months because my hearing continues to go down and I am afraid that more practicing will cause a greater loss. My husband and try to walk 45 minutes a day six days a week. We enjoy birding together. I enjoy cooking, traveling, and playing bridge. I have directed bridge games and taught bridge on cruise ships.
S: It’s impressive that you make time to pursue your many interests! What about your career path?
D: I graduated from Cornell University, earned my Master’s in Social Work through the Universities of Michigan and Washington, and worked briefly in social services in the 60s. Later, I received a law degree from the University of Washington in1972, worked in various settings, and had my own independent law practice for a number of years. I then decided to secure a Master’s degree in Music at the University of Washington. However, after taking pre-requisite courses I decided that squeezing in 4+ hours of piano practice plus homework into a day would be too difficult for me.
S: You’ve certainly kept busy. What about your family?
I have two daughters. My daughter, in California, is medical architect for Sutter Health and my daughter, in Idaho, is a natural resource specialist responsible for environmental compliance. I also have two grandchildren aged 19 and 17. Our daughters and grandchildren will be spending the Thanksgiving dinner and weekend at our home.
S: Can you share your path to the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services?
D: I’ve been involved with Bellevue Network on Aging (BNOA) since it was founded in 2006. Cathy VonWald, a former Woodinville City Councilwoman, City of Bellevue employee, and member of the Advisory Council, told me about Area Agencies on Aging (AAA). She arranged for interested members of the BNOA to attend a Washington Senior Citizen’s Lobby conference in Renton, where Aging and Disability Services staff discussed their legislative agenda, and that is how I learned about state-level advocacy for seniors. Cathy encouraged BNOA members to become involved in senior advocacy and I started attending the Advocacy Committee meetings, which are public meetings. A few members noticed me and thought there would be a place for me on the council. So far, I have enjoyed my time on the Advisory Council. What we do is similar to the work of an attorney: understanding and advocating for your clients’ needs. I’ve learned about a lot of senior issues, which is why I’ve stayed around.
S: Why do senior issues resonate with you? Have you always been such a strong advocate for aging causes?
D: Because of my membership in the Bellevue Network on Aging, I became interested in how state law and budgets impact seniors. In 2008, we saw tremendous cuts to human services budgets, which really impacted seniors. I remember reading a newspaper article at that time about a woman who used to get physical therapy in her home and stopped being able to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom when therapy was discontinued. Two or three months later, she could no longer walk. About this time a woman brought her disabled mother-in-law in a wheelchair to a Senior Lobby conference to share the importance of services for seniors. The daughter-in-law had quit her job at an assisted living facility to care for her mother-in-law. Due to financial cuts, she lost a certain number of days a week she would be paid for caregiving her mother-in-law, which meant they had insufficient money to live on. I thought that these stories made a strong case for programs that help seniors stay in their homes. That’s when I started really paying attention.
S: I know caregiver support and social isolation among older adults are important issues to you. What else are you tracking that aging advocates need to pay closer attention to?
D: I’m interested in hearing loss issues, especially the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline. I’ve been involved with the Hearing Loss Association for a long time. Medicare does not cover hearing aids and in 2010 Washington Medicaid ceased covering hearing aids for people over age 21. During the period that persons were drafting the Washington State Alzheimer’s plan, I attended their meetings, spoke about the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline, and emphasized that Washington Medicaid in 2010 had ceased to cover adult hearing aids. Following a meeting, a senior lobbyist told me that adult hearing aids were covered by Medicaid. Research by DSHS staff proved this was not true. Then the senior lobbyist reached out to me to ask if I wanted help introducing legislation to restore hearing aid coverage. After three years of hard work, the legislature finally restored coverage of adult hearing aids under Medicaid. If it were not for the lobbyist and the help of many senior organizations, I never would have thought of approaching any Senator or House members. It was a very interesting process and I received two awards for my efforts—a 2019 Sound Generations Inspire Positive Aging award and a 2018 Hearing Loss Association of America award.
Currently, I attend meetings of the Dementia Action Collaborative, the organization responsible for executing the Washington State Alzheimer’s plan. I remind members that persons with hearing loss are more apt to have dementia. I believe this may be caused by social isolation, depression and/or the failure of many persons with hearing loss to use hearing aids. Many people believe that use of hearing aids will delay or prevent dementia. There are good articles about dementia and modifiable risk factors on the CDC website and the connection between hearing loss and dementia on the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health website.
I am excited that over-the-counter hearing aids will soon be available for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. The reduction in price will enable more persons to purchase hearing aids and the increase in the number of persons using hearing aids will hopefully reduce the number of persons embarrassed to wear hearing aids
S: It’s interesting to hear you say you would have never thought of approaching legislators because you seem so at ease now in your advocacy. I appreciate tagging along in constituent meetings with state and federal legislators with you and it’s obvious that some of them remember you. How do you start and build relationships with your elected officials?
D: It is important to meet with legislators prior to the legislative session, as well as during the legislative session. I remember meeting Representative Walen (LD-48) at a small coffee shop in Kirkland in about 2019. She had sent an email to constituents about an open house. As I had sent her an e-mail earlier about ADS’ legislative priorities, I invited the ADS Director at the time, Cathy Knight, to join me. I was happy she did because she was able to clearly explain how Area Agencies on Aging work and thus Rep. Walen obtained a good understanding of the problems AAA experience.
S: What a valuable opportunity to connect people like that! I think reaching out to legislators about issues you care about is so important. It’s not an easy skill to develop, but it gets easier with preparation and practice. I also appreciate that you show up with facts and figures—pretty important to legislators! I bet that alone gives you lots to talk about! On local issues, you’re involved with AARP Washington and fairly active with elder law awareness-building. Are you tracking anything on the federal level?
D: I am pleased with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which passed in August, and all the good things it’ll do for the seniors and the environment. It’s great that the Act caps the amount that Medicare beneficiaries will need to pay out-of-pocket for Medicare Part D prescription drugs to $2,000 per year beginning 2025. I have concerns about the timeline for the Medicare prescription drug price negotiations, which won’t have an impact on any prices until 2026. If we get elect another President in 2022 and/or the makeup of Congress changes, I don’t know what that means for these negotiations. I think we’re moving in the right direction though.
We need to increase the long-term solvency of Social Security by eliminating and/or raising the income cap on the funds withheld for social security. At this time only wages up to $147,000 are taxed for social security. Unless the cap is raised, in 2035 the Social Security program may only be able to pay 80 percent of anticipated benefits. Presently, there are several Congressional bills dealing with Social Security and the income cap. I believe Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust (H.R. 5723) has the greatest support.
Another issue that I continue to be passionate about is the need for Medicare coverage of vision, dental, and hearing services. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that such legislation will pass this year. Medicare does not cover yearly eye exams, although early diagnosis and treatment can prevent some eye diseases from causing permanent vision loss or blindness. Leaving dental issues untreated is scary and causes other health complications. For example, if a person has dental problems, bacteria running from the mouth through their body can impact knee surgery. We had a small win in the hearing loss community when the over-the-counter hearing aid regulations were released this year. But over-the-counter hearing aids are only designed to help persons with mild to moderate hearing loss.
A bill I oppose is the TRUST Act of 2021 (S. 1295), introduced by Senator Romney (R-UT). This bill creates “rescue committees” to recommend what actions should be taken for federal trusts like Social Security and Medicare, which are anticipated to face insolvency. Enacting the Trust Act could lead to reduction of benefits and possibly the ending of the programs.
S. I feel as advocates, we need to remain vigilant regardless of who holds power in DC. What else do we need from the federal government to support our aging network?
We need more money for the Older Americans Act (OAA) programs. Fortunately, both Senate and House committees are advocating for increases in funding. As you know, the OAA funds critical services that help to keep our county’s seniors healthy and independent.
An advocate’s work is never really done. If you’re interested in joining the ADS Advisory Council and joining members like Diana, Joe, and, Barb (read “Joe Hailey and Barb Williams: Not Sitting on the Sidelines” in AgeWise King County, September 2020), please reach out! An application and more information are available here.
Contributor Sariga Santhosh staffs the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo at top: Diana Thompson at the podium at Sound Generations’ 2019 Inspire Positive Aging awards banquet.