Members of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council for Aging and Disability Services advocate year-round for local, state, and national programs that promote quality of life for older people and adults with disabilities in King County. As their staff liaison, I’m always impressed by the passion, expertise, and energy each one brings to this work. This month, I sat down with two of our newest members, Joe Hailey and Barb Williams, to discuss aging and advocacy during a global pandemic. Our meeting took place online and Joe used a virtual background of a Venice canal.
Sariga (S): Thank you both for agreeing to do this! As the newer faces of our Advisory Council, I’d love for our network to get to know you and what drives your interest in aging issues these days.
Joe (J): Thank you for having us!
Barb (B): We’re the newbies!
S: Tell me about yourselves and how you got here. What is your professional background and how did you end up connecting with the Advisory Council?
J: I’ve spent most of my adult life in the high-tech world. I earned my undergraduate and master’s degrees in applied mathematics and ended up in software development. I worked for IBM for 30+ years and at Cisco Systems for another five years when the network was still fairly new. I also worked for a couple of small software startups before I eventually found my way into insurance sales (Farmers and AAA). I operated my own insurance agency for a short time and hated it. Around this time, I caught the bug to get into the nonprofit world. I found myself at United Way of King County and worked there for about six years—first as a resource development officer, then as a corporate relations officer. I got involved with the Green Dot Charter School Board around this time and have served as chair for a couple of years now. My wife and I originally followed our oldest son to Seattle because he was told there were plenty of jobs here. We’d fly up from California to visit and my wife just fell in love with the area. When my kids got married and started having children, we decided to join them here. We had no grandkids when we first moved and now my oldest is 23. I have five beautiful grandkids, so I am firmly entrenched in this area.
S: Where in California?
J: I was born in Bakersfield but my last location was Santa Cruz, right on the coast, when I worked for Cisco Systems. We’ve also lived in Oxnard and Gilroy. Fun fact: Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world and has a major garlic festival every summer!
S: I’m also a transplant, from the East Coast, and I agree it’s so easy to fall in love with this place. What about you, Barb? What’s your story?
B: I was born and raised in Missouri, a long way from Seattle. My husband—whose area of research was cold adaptation—was offered a job in Fairbanks, Alaska. We were newly married and pregnant with our first son when we moved to Alaska, where both my children were born. I taught at the University of Alaska for several years but needed a PhD to be a full-time faculty member. So, I took a leave of absence, applied to and got into a grad school in Seattle, moved my family here, and never looked back. We just fell in love with the Pacific Northwest. We did spend some time in Spokane, which required some adjustment after living in Seattle. I worked at Gonzaga University before I was recruited by Hewlett Packard as a statistician on process improvement. We moved back to Seattle when my husband got a job at the University of Washington. I started working for a local startup that made transceiver (the part of a cell set that communicates between cell towers) test equipment. That work was a big part of my life. After the startup went through an IPO and we merged with a California-based company, I travelled a lot for work. My husband and I retired at the same time, and I put all my energy into environmental education programs for kids from underserved communities. The Highline School District is home to many immigrant families with more than 80 languages spoken at home, but many kids didn’t have the same type of access and resources to the outdoors. I am one of the founders of the Environmental Science Center in Seahurst Park. I was on their board for several years and wrote grants to support programs that increase outdoor opportunities for kids. Then, when my husband was diagnosed with dementia 10 years ago, we moved into a retirement community in Seattle, which is when I became interested in aging issues. I saw the people I lived with experiencing increased frailty, so I took the plunge and became a certified Tai Chi instructor. I teach evidence-based fall prevention classes that increase mobility for older adults. I was still interested in learning more, so I started attending Kaiser Permanente’s Senior Caucus meetings and getting more involved in legislative advocacy. As my network grew, I started attending Aging and Disability Services Advisory Council meetings and, after a year of attending, I was encouraged to apply and finally became a member this year.
S: Thank you—I have a richer understanding of your interests and can see how the issues you raise at our meetings are very much connected to our journey to date. We all approach aging differently, but when did you first start thinking about what it means to age healthily?
J: For me, it started when I moved into my current apartment complex for seniors. Many of my neighbors are isolated, lonely, or living with chronic conditions. I see people smoking and not paying attention to their health. Many can barely move and need assistance to get around. At first, I struggled with this, thinking, “what in the world am I doing here? I do not belong here with all of these old folks.” I was in my 70s but had never been hyperaware of my age. But moving here really drove home to me how important access to resources and education is to healthy living.
B: I live in a senior building that arranges a lot of social activities for residents, but a lot of my neighbors can’t take advantage of those resources. They’re just not physically able. I’m grateful to live where I do but I think, in a lot of cases, by the time people wind up here, their health is already too far gone to get help. And I think that’s a struggle—how do we incentivize people to start taking care of themselves earlier? If we don’t instill good practices like sleeping and eating properly until we can’t physically move, we’re not enjoying life. We’re just coping. In health programming, we talk a lot about resiliency and how building good habits is necessary to recover from unexpected hospitalization or recovery that comes with aging. Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) often offer programs that provide linkage to good habits, but sometimes it’s hard to engage people.
S: You both make a great point about the need to start preparing ourselves early. A lot of people neglect some of these important conversations until it’s too late and play catch-up later in life. I think it’s especially true when we’re younger and aging is a distant thought. Do you agree with that?
J: I know that’s the way I was. Even in my 60s, I wasn’t really focused on aging. I was actively working and had a lot of outside interests, so it was not on the top of my mind. But then you realize things aren’t as elastic as they used to be and it takes longer to bounce back. When you start doing things like throwing out your back, you realize it’s time to pay attention.
B: Listening to and taking care of our aging bodies early is especially important now. We’re hearing that a healthy immune system is important in fighting off COVID-19. Many of the co-morbidities we develop diminish our ability to bounce back after sickness. There are four factors that affect how we age: socialization, cognitive stimulation, exercise, and diet. As long as we’re addressing those in some capacity, we’re on the right track.
S: I noticed both of you have a strong tech background. We’re lucky to live in King County, which is a major tech hub in this country. But not everyone is reaping the benefits of having many innovative tech giants right in our backyards. As aging advocates, what are your thoughts about the role of technology in supporting healthy communities and the digital divide that affects so many people?
B: When the pandemic hit, we moved our lives online. Everything we offer, from movies to meetings, happen on Zoom. I know you can arrange to have somebody come to your apartment and help set up Zoom. But so many people, even with the availability, aren’t interested or are fearful of technology. AARP Washington and its partners in Washington State are leading this effort to expand broadband access. I think partnerships with the library systems would greatly benefit older adults since many offer tech assistance. In terms of alignment, I also think AAAs need to be involved because this effort will require compassion and patience with older adults. I’ve been reading that telemedicine is going to be the primary means of communication between patients and physicians. If we can’t properly use technology to talk to our doctor, we’re disenfranchised from medical help. Our AAAs already offer community-based services, so maybe case managers can be trained to ask clients about their tech needs and connect them to online resources during their visits or calls.
J: I think internet for all is inevitable. The biggest issue with technology is not the technology itself but end user comfort and having the patience to teach and learn the different options that are available. At some point, we need to find a way to make technology simple enough that anyone can access it. I also think now is the time to explore creative options in technology to connect people with resources. Things like creating a database that connects volunteers with people looking for human contact during these isolated times. That’s one of things that I see a lot of my neighbors struggling with: not having family or anyone to drop by or check in. I think every conversation about technology eventually come back to internet access and connectivity, though. As telehealth appointments become our norm, it becomes more critical to achieve universal access. I know there are groups that install free, portable hotspots in neighborhoods that may not have reliable internet access, which then allows anyone to work remotely if you have a laptop. This is a temporary solution, so how do we solve a problem like that?
B: I recommend Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution―and Why America Might Miss It, a book by Susan Crawford, to anyone interested in this topic. It makes the case for the growing need for connectivity for all and how corporate monopolies on internet services hurt people, like those who live in rural areas and families who cannot afford an account, and prevent infrastructure growth that we need to support education, health care, and other sectors. Especially in light of the pandemic we’re in, this is next big thing.
S: Going into the next legislative session, what are some issues that affect older adults you’d want to highlight for our legislators?
J: Homelessness is a big one for me. My most recent position was at Congregations for the Homeless, so this is an issue close to my heart. When you are an older adult, especially an older adult of color living with multiple comorbidities, your chance of survival drops when you’re on the street. With people losing their jobs and eviction moratoriums lapsing around the country, we may see quite an uptick in homelessness. As an advisory council, we need to recognize how medically vulnerable the homeless are and pay close attention to housing needs of older adults at risk of losing their home.
B: I second focusing on the homelessness issue. Once you’re unhoused, everything else falls to the ground. I would also include expanding medical care. Medicare for All or universal coverage is definitely the dream. We need to ensure that people not only have the ability to get the care they need, but that they’re encouraged to use it. I hear stories of individuals stopping their required medications because they need to pay rent. With older adults, there seems to be a tendency to to just grin and bear it and not share their concerns or ask for help. I’m passionate about expanding medical access, including preventative care and reducing costs of life-saving drugs such as insulin.
S: I appreciate both of you so much and how authentically you show up as advocates for your communities at our meetings. What advice would you give someone who is worried about these issues but sitting on the sidelines? Where could one start individual advocacy?
B: I think starting out by writing letters is a safe and non-confrontational way to contact your elected officials. The League of Women Voters has pamphlets that list state and federal delegates, which makes it so easy to craft a letter on an issue you care about and send to the right people. If you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, find a friend who can help you come up with the right messaging. It takes time and effort but legislators do read the mail they receive and it makes an impact.
J: In this age of technology, many organizations push out pre-filled templates that basically send the e-mail for you. All you need are the basics—your name and address—and they automatically send the e-mail to your elected officials. You can start by getting on the right distribution lists, attending webinars, and following different advocacy groups on social media. More often than not, you will get multiple opportunities to reach your government officials. The next steps are showing up at meetings, introducing yourself, and listening to the people in the room. Sooner or later, you’ll find your own way to engage and be an effective advocate. There are so many unmet needs, so many causes that speak to us, and so many ways we can help. None of us should be sitting on the sidelines right now.
Contributor Sariga Santhosh staffs the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services. For more information, e-mail Sariga.Santhosh@seattle.gov.