Sound Generations, a nonprofit agency that benefits from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, runs six senior centers in King County and offers meal programs, transportation and other services to seniors, caregivers and adults with disabilities.
Betty Comtois was trained as an actor. “I know how to fall,” she said.
But now a few months shy of her 90th birthday, and fortunate to have avoided broken bones in several recent tumbles, Comtois needs to reduce her risk of serious injury in a spill.
Physical therapy appointments help the retired University of Washington professor of playwriting. “I think I would’ve been a cripple at this point,” Comtois said, if not for the strength and flexibility she’s gained through therapy.
Family members recently persuaded her to give up driving. To get to her medical appointments, Comtois has been relying on a ride service provided by Sound Generations, the nonprofit King County agency formerly known as Senior Services.
ABOUT THIS SERIESEach year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the fall and winter, The Times is telling how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can make.
“I tried to find as many people to impose upon until I found this service,” said Comtois, a Seattle resident. “It’s wonderful.”
The organization is one of 12 that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. Sound Generations runs six senior centers in King County and offers meal programs, transportation and other services to seniors, caregivers and adults with disabilities.
With 83,000 clients last year, Sound Generations is the largest nonprofit in the state serving such a population, said agency CEO Paula Houston.
Yet the need for senior services is only growing, with a demographic spike of baby boomers hitting retirement age. King County’s senior population is expected to double from 2008 to 2025.
With that dramatic growth comes longer life expectancy, frailer health and the need for more help to keep seniors living at home.
The individual ride service is well-used. This year, through October, it had supplied 1,681 seniors with trips covering 276,299 miles (equivalent to almost 100 Seattle-to-New York trips).
It runs on the volunteer labor of some 400 drivers, most of whom are seniors themselves. They include Linda Milgrom, 69, a retired UW librarian, who recently ferried Comtois to and from her physical therapy.
“I get a lot out of it. I talk it up, and try to get my friends to do it,” Milgrom said.
But demand for drivers can swamp the supply of volunteers on certain routes and days. Trips from far-flung parts of the county to downtown Seattle can be difficult to accommodate, according to Donald Benedict, lead transportation coordinator for Sound Generations.
“In parts of King County we’re only fulfilling about 75 percent of requests,” Benedict said.
Milgrom, a volunteer driver for 10 years, said she benefits from her one-day-a-week stint. “You meet people with amazing stories,” she said. “You don’t get to be a senior without a story.”
Her favorite was told by an African-American woman from the South who said she was recruited by Boeing to come to Seattle to build World War II airplanes. An original “Rosie the Riveter,” Milgrom said, the woman told her the riveters called their children “rosebuds.”
Comtois is no slouch when it comes to a backstory. She studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Realizing she wasn’t a great actor, she moved into directing, writing and teaching. She was executive director of the UW School of Drama from 1985 to 1989.
Taking a cab would cost her out of pocket and would lack some of the pleasantness and care offered by Milgrom and other drivers, who tend to arrive at a passenger’s home early, help them get into their vehicle, and wait for them to finish their appointments for a ride home.
“I’ve certainly met wonderful people,” Comtois said of Sound Generations’ drivers.
Most drivers volunteer one or two days a week, said Benedict. The longest-serving driver has volunteered for 32 years.
Clients must reside in King County and be 60 or older, Benedict said. The program is focused on medical appointments, and clients have to show they have some difficulty getting around but can get in and out of a car with minimal assistance, or on their own.
Rides are prioritized on age, frailty and income, he said. The program’s oldest client is now 102.
Sound Generations (formerly Senior Services) runs six senior centers in King County and offers meal programs, transportation and other services to seniors, caregivers and adults with disabilities.
Your dollars at work
Samples of what Sound Generations can do with your donation:
$25 provides a senior with a door-to-door ride to a medical appointment
$50 supports 100 miles driven by volunteers who escort seniors to the doctor or dentist
$100 provides five seniors or adults with disabilities with rides to the grocery, doctor and other local destinations
To sign up, seniors should call 206-448-5740, Benedict said, or 1-800-282-5815. They can be enrolled over the phone so they don’t have to fill out paperwork, he said.
Drivers undergo criminal-background checks, as well as driving-record checks. They are not paid. If a passenger wants to give Milgrom money, she asks them to donate to Sound Generations.
Drivers can get reimbursed for mileage. But Benedict said the agency is asking drivers to forgo that because of budget constraints.
“I feel appreciated by the agency and clients. I don’t want any more compensation,” said Milgrom, who also volunteers one day a week at the UW Medical Center.
Some drivers join the program because they couldn’t perform that service for a parent or grandparent, Benedict said.
“I can envision one day when I’m in need of this,” Milgrom said, “and I’m putting in my time now.”
Fund For The Needy contributions help stretch Sound Generations’ funding in the face of a financial squeeze.
Most of the organization’s $15.2 million budget last year came from local, state and federal grants. The rest comes from foundation and corporate grants, individual donations and events.
Government funding has stayed flat, Houston said. Meanwhile, Sound Generations saw a $750,000 reduction in funding this year, as United Way shifted the focus of its senior funding to its priorities of homelessness and financial stability. (United Way still steered $108,000 to Sound Generations this year, with some of that for transportation services.)
Houston is concerned that society seems to look at funding for youth issues as investing in the future, while spending for seniors nearing the end of life is seen as an expense.
“We want to change that conversation,” she said. “Older adults are an asset, and they bring wisdom and experience and should be seen as a good investment.”