Sally Bagshaw hops on her preferred around-town vehicle—her e-bike—and deftly negotiates the traffic and construction-limited streets that have become Seattle’s trademark. She is on her way to the local kickoff of Older Americans Month, an acknowledgement launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to honor the country’s older citizens. Actually, the moniker Kennedy used then was Senior Citizens Month. The word “senior” later fell out of favor and was replaced by “older.”
Bagshaw, 67, and in her third term on the Seattle City Council, doesn’t like “older” either. Maybe “more-experienced,” she muses as she glances up at the offending word blazing in blue on a screen at the front of the room where she is speaking. Her “more-experienced” audience nods and laughs.
Bagshaw has cycled from her home in downtown Seattle to Mirabella. The upscale retirement community, host to May’s Older Americans Month launch, is practically in the heart of what some might consider its antithesis—the living, breathing, youthful tech-world behemoth of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
A perfect contrast that suits the city as a whole, you might say. The young and the… let’s say the words together: “more experienced.” The vibrant and the active; the retired and the inactive?
If you’re inclined to dwell in these stereotypes, you’d be steamrolled by the energy and determined involvement of a growing army of those “more experienced” who are still working (or going back to work), who are setting records by their participation in a variety of programs offered by the city of Seattle for the 50-and-over set—from computer training to East African cuisine—and who are volunteering.
Bagshaw has a perfect example: 91-year-old John Pehrson, whose civic involvement is legendary. His latest project? A proposed walkway from South Lake Union to the waterfront.
Does he have clout? Do people listen? “When he comes to the city council, we recognize him as such a scholar,” Bagshaw says, “as someone who does his homework.”
“He doesn’t come in and say, ‘Be nice to me because I’m a senior.’ He does it because he’s friggin’ smart and engaged!” says Bagshaw.
You’d be hard-pressed to find two people more enthusiastic over what’s happening in Seattle than Cathy Knight, director of Aging and Disability Services (a division of the Seattle Human Services Department), and Irene Stewart, who is project manager for Age-Friendly Seattle. Although city programs aimed at older adults have been in place for years, Seattle City Council signed on to the Age-Friendly commitment in 2017, linking the city to the World Health Organization and to the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities.
Knight and Stewart have wasted no time in getting its message across. Age-Friendly Seattle’s website is packed with information. Dancing? There. Tax relief? There. How to organize your own political interest group? There.
“People think of Seattle from the outside as Amazon and all of these millennials,” says Knight, “and forget that this is a vibrant city with people of all ages. Part of staying here for some people is to continue working, it’s the way they can stay in the city. We need to capitalize on people’s interests in giving back, to extend those interests in a meaningful way.” It’s a message she’d like spread across the city, from business boardrooms to government bodies.
However, there remain some powerful roadblocks.
“Ageism and ableism are two things we need to meet head on,” says Stewart. “A lot of people don’t want to address senior issues. They don’t want to face their own mortality. But we’re all going to grow old.”
And ability? “Ableism is even more complex. “Look at us,” Stewart says, pointing to the threesome sitting in Knight’s office. “Two of the three of us are wearing glasses.” (The third was wearing contacts.) “Where does disability start?”
Issues for Seattle’s aging population are on Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plate, too. (Durkan turned 60 during this year’s Older American’s Month.) She lists several city endeavors, among them a $100 million affordable-housing investment that includes low-income seniors; a pilot program offering “last-mile” transit (getting from the last bus stop to home, for example); and a citywide focus on improvements to transportation, housing, outdoors spaces, community support, health services, and access to information.
“In every policy and piece of legislation, I consider the impact on seniors in our city,” Durkan says. “Seattle is my home. I was born here, just like my mom, and I am committed to ensuring that longtime residents of Seattle are able to stay in the city they love.”
So, as part of the decision-making process, how do you get more people like activist John Pehrson involved?
There’s a recruiting program in Seattle called “Get Engaged” for young people ages 18 to 29 to serve yearlong terms on various boards and commissions. “Why not the same thing for our more experienced residents?” Bagshaw asks.
“People really underestimate the influence they can have,” adds Knight. “I sometimes feel that if we could get ourselves organized around some issue and be very vocal, we could make a difference.”
Terry Tazioli works part time at University Book Store in Seattle. He left The Seattle Times in 2008 and since then has been serving in various volunteer positions, hosted a national PBS book show called WellREAD, and now co-hosts an online and on-air book club produced by the bookstore and KOMO-TV’s Seattle Refined afternoon program.