Beyond providing meals, rides to medical appointments and minor home repairs, Senior Services, which operates seven senior centers in King County, helps older adults stay active and forge friendships, warding off isolation and loneliness.
Elizabeth Fujimori, who moved here five months ago from New York to be closer to her son after her husband died, is a relative newcomer to the lunch crowd at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center.
Others, like Joanne Mehus, a retired school psychologist, and Pat Stonehocker, who used to work for the phone company, are regulars who’ve shown up every weekday for years to enjoy hot, made-from-scratch meals.
“For $3, you can’t beat it,” said Mehus, who also takes exercise classes three times a week at the center on South Holly Street and volunteers at the front desk on Thursday afternoons. “They will feed you, even if you can’t pay for it.”
For many of the seniors who lunch at one of seven senior centers across King County operated by the nonprofit Senior Services, the noontime meal is often their most substantial and nutritious of the day, said CEO Paula Houston.
Senior Services also sponsors its “Community Dining Program” at nine other sites run by different nonprofits, including five that cater to ethnic groups with foods familiar to those communities.
But the lunch program isn’t just about filling bellies with wholesome food. It’s about the fellowship and human connection that comes with breaking bread, the way that sharing a meal and a bit of conversation can ward off the isolation and loneliness that can lead to depression and other health afflictions among an often invisible population.
“The needs of seniors aren’t seen as a crisis … It’s not in your face,” Houston said.
Senior Services, one of a dozen nonprofit organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times’ annual Fund For The Needy, served more than 71,000 people last year, the vast majority of them over the age of 60. But the agency also serves adults with disabilities and caregivers of all ages.
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. Click here to donate to Fund For The Needy.
In January, the 48-year-old agency will change its name to Sound Generations to better reflect all of the people it serves. The name change is also a way to better highlight its status as a nonprofit organization, since Senior Services “sounds very governmental,” Houston said.
In addition to its Community Dining Program, Senior Services operates Meals on Wheels, which last year delivered meals to more than 2,200 homebound seniors. More than 600 volunteer drivers take seniors and adults with disabilities to and from medical appointments in their own vehicles, and the agency’s Hyde Shuttle, with 38 routes across King County, offers shared transportation to senior centers and other essential appointments.
Senior Services provides respite care to give caregivers much-needed breaks, a wide variety of fitness and educational classes, minor home repairs as well as legal, consumer and health-insurance help. Advocates field thousands of phone calls every year, helping seniors or their loved ones find resources to meet their needs.
With an annual budget of nearly $18 million, Senior Services gets more than half of its money from local, state and federal grants, most of it disbursed through the city of Seattle’s Aging and Disability Service Division, according to Houston.
“All government money is restricted,” she said, explaining that those funds go to specific programs but without covering all of a program’s costs.
That’s why corporate and individual donations, as well as money received from the Fund For The Needy, are so important: Unrestricted cash can be divvied up to fill in those funding gaps and “keep the service levels where we want them to be,” Houston said.
While 65 percent of people who access help through Senior Services are low income, only 27 percent are minorities — even though people of color are more likely to be living in poverty, said Houston.
“We know we have a lot of work to do to reach out and engage with our communities of color,” she said.
But making ends meet, let alone expanding programs to reach seniors most in need, is about to become more difficult: United Way of King County recently announced that come July, it will no longer financially support programs for seniors and adults with disabilities.
United Way’s $1.75 million cut to 29 agencies will mean Senior Services will lose about $800,000 a year in unrestricted funds “and we won’t be able to backfill that amount,” Houston said, though the nonprofit is working to find a way to boost fundraising efforts.
“It’s really, really frightening … How do we make up for that gap when we’re already strapped?” said Lynda Greene, the executive director of the Southeast Seattle Senior Center at 4655 S. Holly St.
One of the biggest fundraisers is Rainbow Bingo, held four times a year at different senior centers with caller Sylvia O’Stayformore, a drag queen, said Greene, whose center is hosting the next bingo night Friday from 6 to 9 p.m.
Rainbow Bingo is a special night when the whole community comes out and 90-year-olds play alongside 20-somethings, Greene said.
While the senior centers would like to attract that kind of age range on a more regular basis — lunches, for instance, cost $6 for non-seniors — the people who frequent the Southeast center say they look after each other and participate in activities that help them feel vibrant and connected.
“Staying home would drive me nuts,” said Alice Poree, who, like other seniors interviewed by The Seattle Times, declined to say how old she is. But she looks so youthful that her neighbors “used to think I was going to work” before she told them she was driving herself to the senior center every day.
Poree, a lunchtime regular, is also a frequent player of “beach volleyball,” a usually competitive game in which seniors bat a small beach ball over a net while seated in chairs. “I look forward to playing — it’s a lot of fun.”
Ouida Garrett calls herself a “life member” who splits her time between the Southeast and Central Area senior centers. She’s become close friends with several women she’s met through exercise classes and trips to a local casino. Her husband, Leonard, sometimes accompanies her, but usually she takes lunch home for him in a to-go box, riding to and from the centers on the Hyde Shuttle.
“It’s a fun place for me. It helps you realize aging is a part of life,” Garrett said.
“At night when I pray, I always pray for the two senior centers — Central and Southeast — and that people will be able to benefit from it and it won’t be too costly.”