Posts Tagged ‘Aging’

Active Northwest Seniors Compete in the 18th Annual Washington State Senior Games

Across the United State this summer, seniors are competing against their peers in senior games—proving that you can be an athlete at any age. In recognition of these games, and with this year being a qualifying year for the National Senior Games in 2015, we are publishing a series of articles about the senior games. Join us as we celebrate the men and women who are redefining active aging.

WA State Senior Games - Athletes hugging

Photo courtesy of Washington State Senior Games

This July, seniors—from Oregon, British Columbia, and even from California and Arizona—will converge in the Olympia area to compete in the Washington State Senior Games (WSSG). For 18 years, these games have enabled seniors the opportunity to compete against their peers in a professional setting and be cheered on by family and friends.

According to Jack Kiley, president of the WSSG, the games came to Washington State late; while the first National Senior Olympic Game was held in 1987 in St. Louis, the games didn’t begin in Washington until 1996. At that time, it was called the Puget Sound Senior Games and there were only a few hundred participants competing in four to five sporting events. Now Kiley says that 23 events are offered with 2,000 participants competing each year, and we are still “trying to get past that 2,000 person plateau,” he says.

Though their games are “very inclusive,” allowing out-of-state seniors to participate, Kiley admits there is difficulty spreading word about Washington’s games due to a limited budget. Though they send flyers to senior centers and YMCAs, it is mostly through word-of-mouth that seniors learn about us and join the games, he explains.

Basketball team at Washington State Senior Games

Photo courtesy of Washington State Senior Games

Another difficulty in attracting participants could also be the stereotype associated with the term senior, Kiley says. Even though the games are open to adults 50 years or older—there was even a 103-year-old shot putter one year—those in their 50s do not consider themselves seniors just yet. The average age of most participants is 62-63.

Of the 23 events offered at this year’s games, seniors can expect some new ones including rock climbing, power walking and trap shooting. Kiley says the board is “open to virtually everything” when it comes to event suggestions, but some might not be held if they cannot find a commissioner to run the event or find a venue to host it.

Because of the diversity of sports and the need for multiple venues to host the events, the events are held around the South Sound area. “We have to pay for most of the venues we use,” Kiley says, and the board strives to find the best venue possible to give the participants the best experience possible. He adds that “the venues like the idea of being part of the games.” As an example of the event sites this year, softball is held in at the Mason County Recreational Area, soccer at the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey and shuffleboard at the Little Creek Casino in Shelton.

Athlete participating in bowling at the Washington State Senior Games

Photo courtesy of Washington State Senior Games

With the WSSG being an all-volunteer nonprofit, they depend upon outside funding to support the games. The majority of funding comes from the lodging tax collected in the cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater. Kiley adds that over 30 businesses and governments— including the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Panorama, and Olympics West Retirement Inn—participate significantly to make the games a success. The athletes also support the games through their registration fee.

While it has been suggested to host the games elsewhere in Western Washington, Kiley says the board likes the idea that the games are held in the state capitol. The WSSG are a “significant event in a smaller area,” which means we can attract more attendees, he says.

Though the opening ceremony is July 26 at the Tumwater High School Stadium, several events are being held this weekend, including softball and ballroom dance. Of all the games, Kiley says that softball comprises of one-third (around 600) of the total participants. Track and field has the second highest number of participants at 200. For many of the events, there is an equal participation of the sexes, but “I would love to have more women’s softball and basketball teams,” Kiley says, which only have men teams.

WA State Senior Games - Javelin

Photo courtesy of Washington State Senior Games

With 2014 a qualifying year for the 2015 National Senior Games, Kiley expects there likely will be more participants competing. He says what makes the games unique is the sight of grandparents being cheered on by their families; it is “really a great reverse for the lives of most of us,” seeing the young folks actively cheering us—“it is very sobering and very delightful to see.”

Kiley recommends that those who are interested in participating should visit the WSSG website and take a look at the available events. He also adds that seniors who want to learn how to train should talk with our volunteers and they will be connected with others involved in the sport.

For Kiley, he played tennis in the games during the 2000s. When someone learned he was retired, they asked him to join as a treasurer, which led into the administration, he explains. With most of the board members still working, Kiley takes on many of the responsibilities in managing the day-to-day tasks of organizing the games. And though, at 75, he has every right to enjoy a work-free retirement, Kiley embraces the work because there is “a lot of satisfaction putting the games together, to give these committed senior men and women a chance to compete against their peers.”

Andrea Watts is content writer for In addition to covering senior living, she also writes on sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWest, The Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

No Limits: National Parks are More Accessible than You Think

Senior-friendly features at the WWII Memorial

World War II Memorial – Washington, DC (Photo courtesy of NCA)

Summer is here, and a visit to a nearby national park is an easy way to combine the outdoors and history all in one trip. With 401 sites comprising the National Park System (NPS) across the United States, visiting a historic site, battlefield or national park is easier than most people realize. And a hike to the backcountry isn’t required to see the best views. Whether you use a scooter, cane or wheelchair, many national parks allow you the same experience and viewing delights as those without limited mobility.

Every visitor benefits from accessibility features in parks, says Kathy Kupper, a public affairs specialist at the NPS, and they are often in forms that people likely aren’t even aware of—such as benches spaced along a trail, little change in elevation along walking paths, scenic features spaced nearby, and accessible bathrooms. These can all impact the visiting experience, especially for people who can only stand for short periods of time without difficulty.

Hawaii National Park Boardwalk

The Hawaii Volcano boardwalk trail – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was a 2005 Accessibility Award winner. (Photo courtesy of Ray Bloomer, NPS)

With the first parks designed initially for wagons and later automobiles, most parks have a scenic drive that allows visitors to see its features, Kupper explains, adding that overlooks are at the best place to see views that “take your breath away.” She says that after exploring the parks for better views, Ken Burns often returned to overlooks to film scenic vistas for his documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The nature trails around the visitor center also provide a “good thumbprint” of what the park holds. Since many people venture only a quarter mile or so down a trail before turning back, these shorter trails are designed so visitors can see features right away.

The NPS’s formal focus on accessibility started in 1979 with the creation of the Accessibility Office. It has remained a priority ever since, especially under the current director Jonathan B. Jarvis, who is a “strong proponent of accessibility,” says Ray Bloomer, an accessibility specialist for the NPS and director of education and technical assistance for the National Center on Accessibility. A national accessibility taskforce is currently developing a five-year strategy to improve accessibility in the NPS. The focus is on everything a visitor can benefit from, whether it is physical or programmatic accessibility, such as providing educational materials in large-print, Bloomer says.

Pearl Harbor

An example of programmatic accessibility at The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. (Photo courtesy of Ray Bloomer, NPS)

The agency also has an annual Accessibility Award program that serves the dual purpose of recognizing people and parks who have improved accessibility and encouraging employees to do more. Since the awards program started in 1998, Bloomer reports that “awareness has been increasing on a daily basis.” Past winners include Yosemite National Park and Cabrillo National Monument, along with the Gulf Islands National Seashore and World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

On each park’s website, the accessibility features are available under the Plan Your Visit tab. For example, on the Yosemite National Park web page, there is an accessibility guide and a visual guide for people with aphasia. “I’m still very proud of how the rangers and volunteers represent the NPS,” Bloomer says, adding that to create the best experience, he encourages people to contact the park prior to visiting, because the NPS “want[s] everyone to have a good visit.”

Broadmoor Seniros at Sutro Baths

Field trips to nearby National Parks are a favorite activity of residents at The Broadmoor in San Francisco. Here they are are at Sutro Baths, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Photo courtesy of Ken Johnson)

Good visits are always what the seniors at The Broadmoor, an independent living community for active seniors in San Francisco, experience. Along with his responsibilities of Property Manager, Ken Johnson also coordinates outside activities, and his residents enjoy trips to the nearby national parks, such as Yosemite, Sutro Baths at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Muir Woods. “They tell me where they want to go,” he says, and adds that if he plans to bring a large group to the park, he will call in advance to book a tour. Johnson has always found NPS staff accommodating and helpful whenever his groups visit, always answering the questions his residents ask. And he always makes sure the gift shop is open before scheduling a visit, since his residents like to browse for souvenirs and purchase snacks.

It is not only accessibility features that make national parks an appealing destination for seniors, however. One enticing incentive is the lifetime pass, Kupper says. For only $10, seniors can purchase a pass that can be used for free entrance to sites administered by the NPS, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. For an added bonus, the pass applies to people traveling with them.

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park

A tactile display at The Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, a 2004 Accessibility Award winner. (Photo courtesy of Ray Bloomer, NPS)

Every park has accessible features, not just the large parks, Kupper explains, and while Bloomer acknowledges that not every park is 100 percent accessible, the NPS is actively identifying deficiencies. What complicates the issue is the need to maintain a “balance [of] historic preservation and accessibility,” and he adds that staff also has to consider what can be sustained aesthetically within the natural surroundings.

When you plan your visit it is important to check the park’s accessibility features, and also consider the time of day and year. Bloomer says that while the Statute of Liberty is accessible, there are few places to sit if the lines are long. And when in doubt, do not hesitate to ask the NPS staff for advice.

So what are you waiting for: Find a park and head out!

If you are interested visiting parks that have many accessible features, Bloomer has provided this sample list of some parks.

Andrea Watts is content writer for, and in addition to covering senior living, she also writes on sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWest, The Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

The Last Stop: Reflections after Five Years

Senior enjoying a dance classAt my retirement community, my friends and I are having a good time. Chronologically we’re old, but our lifestyle is not! There are some residents living here in their sixties but most of us are in our seventies or eighties with even a few in their nineties. No one in their hundreds yet but that may happen.

Whether I call my home a group home, an institution or life on a permanent cruise ship, living here has proven to be a wonderful recreational, social and cultural opportunity for me. To join my community, you must be at least 62 years old and healthy.

According to Karen, a 69-year-old widow, “I got tired having dinner with Brian Williams every night. Sometimes I would switch to PBS but that wasn’t any better. I’ve been a widow for four years. It’s a lonesome life. Now I live with a group of people. I’ve made wonderful friends, and I have someone to have dinner with every night.”

Read my article  “Reflections After Five Years,” and you’ll see that moving to a CCRC was the right choice for me and why I thoroughly recommend it to others.

This post was written by Margery Fridstein, an author and retired psychotherapist who lives in a CCRC outside of Denver, CO. She is chronicling her experience in the monthly series, “The Last Stop With Margery Fridstein.”

Read more about Margery’s experience moving and the challenges that ensued in “The Last Stop: Reflections after Five Years.”

What’s the best community for a parent who has dementia?

In the prior article Finding Care for an Elderly Parent with Substance Abuse: What are my options?, Sandi Flores, a registered nurse with over 25 years of experience in the assisted living industry, described how families may find an appropriate and caring environment for parents in this difficult situation. In this article, she shares her insight on how to determine whether loved ones require assisted living or memory care if they exhibit signs of dementia and a tendency to wander.

Seniors who display wandering behavior require safety measuresWandering is a common symptom of dementia, with the Alzheimer’s Association reporting that six in ten people will wander. The news frequently has articles about seniors becoming lost while running an errand, and though sometimes the family is reunited, unfortunately this is not always the case. For this reason, many communities that provide memory care advertise that they are a secure environment offering features such as alarmed doors, a secured outdoor courtyard, and entrances that are monitored around-the-clock. Many memory care communities also offer a curriculum of activities designed to engage those with dementia, and newer constructions are specifically designed to allow residents to freely and safely wander.

Despite these supportive features, many people do not want their parent to move into memory care and would prefer an assisted living community. The reason for this, Flores says, is that a stigma still exists about memory loss, and in spite of the Alzheimer’s Association efforts and celebrity campaigns to demystify and raise awareness, many families do not want their friends to know their parent is in a memory care community. This results in families in denial of the need of a safe living situation that their parent requires, especially if they exhibit wandering, Flores says.

One thing that complicates choosing an appropriate community is predicting wandering behavior in parents with dementia. “There is not a single validated tool to measure the propensity to wander,” Flores says, adding that a parent may not wander at home, but when placed in a new environment—where everything is unfamiliar—wandering could result. Being able to navigate through the community is important to a resident’s ability to thrive in their new home, and she adds that it is very dangerous if parents are moved into the wrong environment, as their safety could be jeopardized.

Seniors with Alzheimer's or dementia may require specialized memory careWhen advising families who are insistent that memory care is not needed or their parents exhibit only mild symptoms of dementia, Flores recommends assigning a resident buddy upon joining the community. This way, the new resident can be monitored in a less intrusive way to determine if wandering will occur. In her experience, if a parent is prone to wandering, it will happen within 72 hours of moving into their new home. However, even if a community offers more frequent check-ins, this alone is not enough to guarantee wandering will not occur.

Even if a parent with dementia does not exhibit wandering, they could still benefit from the programming that memory care communities offer. “I like it when memory care is available [in addition to assisted living],” Flores says. Many assisted living communities now offer memory care services as well, making the transition to higher levels of care more seamless. Yet, even when families recognize that dementia requires a unique type of care, the steeper costs associated with that care–with monthly prices ranging from $3,500 to over $7,000—cause many to balk at acknowledging a need for memory care.

The good news is that not everyone with dementia wanders or needs an enhanced environment, Flores says. More communities are offering “memory care light” to keep residents comfortable and safe and are using more virtual caregiver technologies to remain non-intrusive, demonstrating what she proudly refers to as “creative side of nursing.”

Flores emphasizes that families should be honest about what their parent needs, not only to remain safe, but also to live the rest of their life comfortably. And if memory care is required, she says families should not “think of it as a sentence,” but as an opportunity because these communities offer meaningful activities that promote their parents’ well-being, reconnecting them with the beauty of life.

Andrea Watts is content writer for, and in addition to covering senior living, she also writes on sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWestThe Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

Joan’s Journey: Senior Living Begins

Welcome Joan’s Journeyers. I apologize, sort of, for the cliffhanger or “teaser,” as I ended our last blog with “Wam!Oliver - 052314 Boom! Whoosh through the air — like a cartoon character, I flew from the floor, my body in the air, landing face down on the platform” at my grandson Oliver’s 4th Birthday Party in Los Angeles.

What happened next?

After a few seconds of coming to grip with the accident, I knew something was terribly wrong with my hand, arm and shoulder to my neck. They felt dead — not painful — dead.

The very last thing I wanted was to ruin Oliver’s party — especially since he has warmed my heart on an earlier trip with a special party invitation. Quickly and quietly my son Mark and his friend Steve moved me away from the party play equipment. We waited for an ambulance to rush me to Cedars Sinai Medical Center Emergency Room. From the play area, Oliver sadly waved as the paramedics carried me on a stretcher to the ambulance. I told Oliver I was very sorry to leave early from his fun party.

Joan London, a former Houston Chronicle newspaper correspondent, is a freelance medical and social service writer. Ms. London recently moved from Baltimore to a senior housing residence in Santa Monica, CA, where she is closer to her children and grandchildren.

To read the rest of Joan’s post, view “Part 18: Senior Living Begins” of Joan’s Journey.

The Last Stop: Why the Last Stop?

Margery off to a new adventureI was surprised when my fellow resident told me she didn’t like the name of this series. She found it too depressing.  To me, when one chooses to live in a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC), which is what my senior residence is, one is making an end of life decision and it becomes the Last Stop. Sure, I find my death hard to think about but I am convinced that I have found a good way to live before it happens.

Another friend, hearing the criticism of the title, suggested I call the series Moving on. What do my readers think?

This post was written by Margery Fridstein, an author and retired psychotherapist who lives in a CCRC outside of Denver, CO. She is chronicling her experience in the monthly series, “The Last Stop With Margery Fridstein.”

Read more about Margery’s experience moving and the challenges that ensued in “The Last Stop: Why the Last Stop?“.

Washington State’s Effort to Support Family Caregivers

In an earlier article I discussed the role of local Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) in connecting caregivers to community resources. In Washington State, one of these resources is the Family Caregiver Support Program (FCSP) that, since its creation in 2000, has provided crucial support that caregivers need to remain effective and allow family members to remain at home even longer.

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center report, 39 percent of U.S. adults are caregivers, and they care for their spouses, their parents, and their friends. They are unpaid and provide an invaluable service of allowing their loved ones to remain at home. This benefits society as a whole as the costs for care in an expensive nursing home or assisted living community would not have to come from public funding sources such as Medicaid. However, this savings can come at the cost of the caregiver’s health; the financial, physical, and emotional tolls that caregivers bear are tremendous.
Caregiver helping resident

Fortunately, every state receives funding to support caregivers, though the availability does vary. Here in Washington, the state legislature recognizes the value of caregiving—which the AARP Public Policy Institute cites as $10.6 billion dollars annually with more than 850,000 unpaid family members providing care—and has committed to providing support through efforts such as the Family Caregiver Support Program (FCSP). This program is administered by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and is coordinated through the local AAA. FCSP owes its creation to former State Representative Carolyn Edmonds who proposed the legislation in 2000 and has the good fortune to receive unanimous support from both major political parties.

There is so much research about the strain on caregivers, says Hilarie Hauptman, kinship and family caregiver program manager with DSHS’s Aging and Long-Term Support Administration (ALTSA). Dana Allard-Webb, a program manager monitoring special projects at ALTSA, explains that people forget about caring for themselves, and research shows that about 80 percent of caregivers in the FCSP show indications of clinical depression. She adds that “a lot of people don’t think of themselves as caregivers,” and they say instead that “‘I am just a spouse.’” According to the January 2013 Family Caregiver Support Program A Report on the FY 2012 Expansion, 36 percent of caregivers have provided care for five years and 55 percent are 61 years or older.

FSCP provides a variety of resources, including caregiving screening and assessments of their current situation, facilities access to supportive services, and helps with creating a care plan. The Tailored Caregiver Assessment and Referral (TCARE®), adopted in 2009 at the behest of the state legislature, provides an evidence-based caregiver assessment tool. Hauptman explains that this centralized web-based system allows us to, “demonstrate that we are making a difference.” According to an FCSP Report, the services provided allows a full 40 percent of those who would otherwise have been placed in long-term care—paid for by Medicaid—-to reside in their home. Furthermore, this allows the care recipient and the family to remain in control of their assets, rather than giving them up in order to receive public funding through programs like Medicaid.

TCARE® focuses less on what caregivers do and more on how they are feel about what they do, Hauptman explains, which helps identify those who need support. Allard-Webb adds that most people are shocked when someone asks them, “How are you feeling?” Their response allows the family caregiver specialists to identify those at a risk for depression and poor health. From there, the specialists tailor care to meet the caregiver’s needs, such as providing training or suggesting in-home care services. Our goal is to develop and nurture a relationship with caregivers and problem-solve their issues, Hauptman says.

Husband assisting wife as she readsDespite the value this program offers caregivers, Hauptman estimates that only one percent of all caregivers–out of a total of 850,000 in WA, according to AARP–make use of the services through FSCP. One of the biggest factors for this low number is the cultural norms surrounding self-reliance. “Asking for help is so difficult through life” and to overcome this obstacle, we work to frame our program as a gift for caregivers, Hauptman says. To identify the resources available to support their responsibilities, caregivers are advised to contact their local AAA to discuss their situation and complete a Personal Caregiver Survey. Most caregivers receive a six-month screening and subsequent follow-ups at least every six months.

For those outside Washington, the local AAA is the best place to start when looking for supportive services. Because all discussions with AAA staff are confidential, caregivers can safely disclose their situation and share their feelings. Hauptman and Allard-Webb encourage caregivers to be proactive in reaching out to programs in their area, so they can receive support and training that will improve both the quality of the care they provide and promote their own well-being. Additionally, the TCARE survey administered by the FCSP is available online, and while its effectiveness is lessened when not used in conjunction with the TCARE program, caregivers can get a better sense of where they could benefit from help and if support services are available.

For states without a robust caregiving program, Hauptman explains that it’s important to come out as a caregiver and to educate legislators about the value of funding support programs. The Family Caregivers are Wired for Health report states that “as the U.S. population ages, and medical advances save and extend more lives, caregiving is likely to become more a common role than it has ever been before,” which means it is more important than ever to advocate for services that will support future caregivers.

To locate your local Area Agency on Aging and Family Caregiver Support Program, you can contact the Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116 or

Andrea Watts is content writer for, and in addition to covering senior living, she also writes on sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWestThe Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

End-of-Life: Starting the Conversation

My beloved grandfather was a life-long smoker. As a direct result, he struggled with emphysema in the last years of his life and it was a miserable condition to die from. Of the many wonderful things he passed down to me, one was indirectly from him but from how he passed.

My father watched his suffering in and out of the hospital over several weeks. We didn’t know about hospice then and it was a cycle of going to the hospital, get feeding tubes to feed him, then send him home where his body was shutting down and didn’t want to eat and then back to the hospital once again. This was repeated two – three times and my poor grandfather was so miserable. My dad helped him as best he could through it all and determined he would never go through the kind of misery my grandpa had to deal with, but more importantly that he would never put me through what he and my mom went through.

My grandparents never really talked much about “the end of life” with my parents. It just happened. My parents remembered that and chose to be wonderfully proactive about discussing this topic with me several years before my dad died, as he saw the direction his Parkinson’s Disease was headed.

We talked about and implemented both a Living Will and a Power of Attorney. We also discussed how they wanted to handle all the different steps involved with a positive “end-of-life” for both parents. Thanks to an article I read, we even talked about my dad’s favorite Bible verses and hymns which we used for his memorial service after he passed away.

And yes! As hard as his last year was for him, for mom, for our families, and for myself, all that pre-planning made this difficult season of life much easier than it could have been.

Of course, you or your senior parents don’t need to have a disease to talk about this tough topic. Even if you are in excellent health, it is an important discussion to have.Senior and Loved One Holding Hands After the publicity of the Terri Schiavo case, my kids and I all discussed who would be in charge if one of them – or I – was injured and unable to express our wishes in that situation.
Hopefully, we will never need to deal with anything like that, but if we do, we are definitely better prepared to do so.

My parents and I didn’t discuss these topics over dinner. We usually just chatted about them when I was visiting at their home or when we were out at doctor appointments. I did read at AARP about an interesting trend among many of us baby boomers – Discussing End-of-Life Issues Over Dinner.

Whether you decide to go with a dinner format or a more casual chat in the living room, there are some excellent resources online to help us with these discussions and with preparing and planning for a positive and proactive “end-of-life.”

  • The National Institute on Aging has some excellent information to help with this topic including a free PDF booklet – End-of-Life: Helping With Comfort and Care – and another free PDF – Getting Your Affairs in Order. Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom as you should see links to even more useful pages and booklets.
  • AARP has another good article, Beginning the Conversation About the End of Life with suggestions for questions to ask and links to more resources.
  • The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization has some excellent links and resources at Learn About End-of-Life Care. They cover the topics of hospice and palliative care as well as Advance DIrectives and Living Wills, including state-specific Advance Directives for you to download.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease diagnoses are growing and this health issue definitely has some extra challenges. has a good section on Planning for Your Future including Legal and Financial Planning, Building a Care Plan and End of Life Planning.
  • Kiplinger’s is always a favorite resource of mine including their article, 4 Key End-of-Life Documents to Get in Order which lists the four vital forms along with the reminder that many banks and other companies have their own forms as well, something my family has run into many times! So be sure to check with all your banks and financial institutions to ask whether they will accept what you have or need another form from them.

All of these combined are an excellent starting point for what is usually a long season of preparation and implementation for elderly parents and those who will be helping them address this topic. It’s not an easy time but it can be the beginning of a new kind of closeness with each other as you come alongside to help one another. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to set an example for the next generation. And as time-consuming as all this paperwork can seem, in the long run it will truly be a major time and stress-saver.

How about you? Have you or your elderly parents already had this “end of life” discussion? Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for resources to add to our list. We’d love to hear them in the comments below.

Written by senior living writer Kaye Swain

Senior Housing Assistance Group: Redefining What Affordable Senior Living Means

SHAG Columbia Gardens at Rainier Court

Columbia Gardens at Rainier Court is a new community in Rainier Valley.

The Senior Housing Assistance Group (SHAG) is more than just about being a roof over the head, according to Executive Director Jay Woolford. As the sixth largest nonprofit provider of affordable senior housing in the United States, SHAG serves a large, underserved population of seniors and is pioneering efforts to create a model of community-based partnerships that allow their residents to age in place at home.

Visually, SHAG communities challenge the stereotype of what most people think of when it comes to affordable senior housing. Their communities resemble those of market-rate communities, offering amenities such as fitness rooms, community gardens and electric car powering stations. As with market-rate communities, SHAG communities are located in urban and town centers, with shopping, restaurants and health care resources accessible within walking distance or a short bus ride.

The diversity of the over 5,000 residents who call a SHAG apartment home might also challenge misconceptions. Though communities are open to seniors 62 and older, most residents are in their 70s, with some being over 100! Like most retirement communities, single women make up a substantial portion of their residents, and seniors who are 55 and disabled comprise 15 percent of the resident population. More than half of SHAG residents have lived at a community for more than five years.

What makes SHAG communities unique is that they are built using a combination of private and public funding sources. While this helps reduce financing and development costs, it also means communities must be self-sustaining and operate primarily on collected rent. As a result, SHAG must plan strategically, balancing the need to build more affordable housing to meet demand while not exceeding their budget.

Since its first community opening in 1989, SHAG has grown to include 28 retirement communities and counting, spanning from Bellingham to Olympia. Woolford says it is not unusual for seniors to ask when a new SHAG community will open in their area. Tukwila is the next location for a SHAG community, with Tukwila Village opening in fall 2014. More communities are planned for Lynnwood, University Place, Bothell, Federal Way and Mountlake Terrace

SHAG residents watching a gameWith many senior living providers focused on building high-end retirement communities, this leaves a large segment of the population unserved. Furthermore, even those who had the luxury to prepare for retirement, one big event, such as a medical emergency, can result in near poverty. This need for affordable housing and services is the hole we are trying to fill, Woolford says.

Many people who could benefit from SHAG housing do not apply because of the belief that they will not qualify: people either think their income is too high or too low to qualify. This is one of the misconceptions that everyone—including legislators— have and they also do not recognize the increasing need for affordable senior housing, and SHAG works to change these perceptions, explains Rebecca Winn, SHAG’s communications coordinator. The reality is that many seniors do meet the requirements; for example, the income limit for a one person household for a SHAG community in King County is $37, 080.

Life at a SHAG community is resident driven. With residents determining the activities being offered, this makes each community unique, Woolford explains. Activities can vary from community to community. For example, the New Haven community in north Seattle offers a movie night and line dancing, Titus Court in Kent has cards and games, and Courtland Place in south Seattle offers women’s arts and culture workshops. A recent initiative at Courtland Place is developing intergenerational programs with local school groups, connecting SHAG residents to the larger community where they live, or as Woolford describes it, “find[ing] ways to break down that barrier in a good way.”

For the past five years, SHAG’s Courtland Place at Rainier Court has participated in the Rainier Valley community festival. They recently received a grant from the city of Seattle through its SouthEast Effective Development (SEED) program to sponsor a musical/art program that allows residents to share their talents with school children. Woolford sees SHAG communities playing a vital role in creating vibrant neighborhoods, with everyone, including their residents, engaged in the pursuit of this goal.

Spokes for Folks bike ride fundraiser for the SHAG Community Life Foundation Saturday Sept. 28, 2013 in Seattle.

The first-annual Spokes for Folks bike ride fundraiser for the SHAG Community Life Foundation

In 2012 SHAG formed the Community Life Foundation whose mission is to “connect seniors living in affordable housing to resources that support their independence.” Through the 2013 Spokes for Folks fundraiser—their first major fundraiser which Woolford described as having a real great energy and bringing the community together—the Community Life Foundation funded a pilot program that combined a health and wellness program with resident services coordination at The Terrace in downtown Seattle.

By partnering with existing community resources to seamlessly connect seniors with services, Woolford and his staff are working to deliver a continuum of care to their residents. This is the least expensive way to serve people,” Woolford explains, and Winn adds that SHAG wants to be on the “forefront of finding solutions for this pocket of [seniors] who are aging.” Some of the challenges faced by the foundation include obtaining funding for services, identifying providers for both health care and housekeeping, and getting residents recognize when they need assistance. Winn states that many middle class residents perceive services such as housekeeping assistance as a luxury, and not something they would consider spending money on.

Through this new pilot program, resident services coordinators are the eyes and ears at the community level. They can help identify residents whose behavior may put them at risk for eviction, whether due to mental health issues or an inability to maintain safe and sanitary living conditions resulting from failing health. Woolford describes the program as absolutely essential, but faces challenges such as maintaining adequate funding and scalability to other communities. Expanding outreach to their veteran residents is also a priority, and Woolford sees a need for SHAG to be more proactive in providing support and connecting them to resources to which they are entitled.

SHAG also offers an internship that allows college students to shadow resident services coordinators and assist with the community engagement program. Not only does this program promote the benefits of working with seniors, which is a growing need, but the residents enjoy seeing new faces. We have received lots of positive feedback about the program, Winn says.

While SHAG is pioneering these new initiatives, they aren’t losing sight of their core mission of providing affordable senior housing. In their most recent annual survey, nearly 100 percent of their 5,000 residents reported that they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the physical upkeep, the management of their community, and their quality of life. With the persistent demand for more SHAG communities throughout western Washington, Woolford pledges that “we will continue to develop with partners to find ways to operate affordable housing.”

To learn more about SHAG housing, visit

Andrea Watts is a Seattle-based freelance writer who covers senior living, sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWestThe Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

10 Great Places to Retire: Part 2

Are you ready to see my top 5 places to retire? As I said in part one, you might be surprised by what I pick for number one.

5. San Diego, California – A gorgeous town with excellent weather overall and easy access to a wide variety ofIndependent Living in San Diego, California beaches. Not to mention plenty of fun and interesting places to visit. It’s a great place to help boomers and seniors stay active year round. On top of all that, people rave about the various restaurants they love to visit. You’re close to sight-seeing pleasures in Mexico, and what fun to be able to visit the San Diego Zoo and Sea World easily.

4. Honolulu, Hawaii – My parents spent ten years right in the heart of Waikiki when my dad’s Parkinson’s Disease started to progress. In Hawaii, he was able walk miles each day as well as play his beloved golf. They lived just minutes from the beach and thoroughly enjoyed it. Everything they needed was within walking distance. We are still convinced that living in the lovely state of Hawaii with grand weather daily helped him stay as active as he did for over 20 years from his initial diagnosis.

3.  Los Angeles, California – Want to know what my favorite thing in L.A. is? Olvera Street.  It’s a popular tourist attraction with several restaurants and tiny shops full of fun and historical delights from Mexico.  They have the best taquitos in the world at the very edge of Olvera street at a teeny tiny place called Cielito Lindo. Many people, like my own family, have been visiting this delicious spot for decades – some of us over 50 years! I don’t have the energy to want to make the long drive there anymore so settling close to that along with all the other delicious restaurants L.A. is famous for would be grand. Not to mention all the intriguing opportunities for tours and sightseeing. The beach and the mountains are just an hour or two in each direction. Oh yes! Los Angeles is definitely on my top-10 list.

2. Sacramento, California – I love both Sacramento and Placer Counties. There are so many interesting things to see and do nearby and within a couple hours of driving. From ocean fun in San Francisco to mountain sports, not to mention several great golf courses, good exercise opportunities abound. Sacramento, itself, has the most intriguing neighborhoods with little delicious restaurants tucked away in fun spots. And there are plenty of malls toIndependent Living in Seattle, Washington keep us busy shopping and eating deliciously. For history buffs, Old Town Sacramento and Fort Sutter are always a treat not to mention the Capitol building and its surrounding area.

1. Seattle, Washington – I might be a bit prejudiced on this one since I am living in this area, but Seattle truly is a lovely locale. I am thrilled that I can’t go more than a few miles in any direction without seeing the glistening of the sun off the ocean, the Puget Sound or one of the many creeks and lakes that abound here. Mt. Rainier is gorgeous and can be seen from so many areas. It’s a real sight for sore eyes! There are hiking trails all over, including very easy ones. has a list of several that are even wheelchair accessible. Each city in the area has its own “personality” and there are so many unique places to eat, I doubt we’d run out of new places to try. And oh my, what fun to ride ferries and whale-watch!

After creating this list, I realized that the locations I daydream about the most generally have delicious food, good weather overall, great places to visit and take visitors to, and fun destinations to shop. Now that you’ve seen my list of the 10 best places to retire in the United States, what do you think? Do you agree or disagree or have other ideas? I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions.

Written by senior living writer Kaye Swain