Help is Available: An Interview with Rowena Rye

The Seattle Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens has roots back to 1971, when Mayor Wes Uhlman—the youngest mayor ever elected in Seattle—started a Senior Information Center. It was the third office of its kind in the United States. The name soon changed as programs and services were added. Some programs have been removed. But 43 years later, the Seattle Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens—unlike the senior citizens offices that came before it—lives on.

Rowena Rye leads the office today. Rowena came to the City of Seattle in 2011 after a decade of directing community resources at the Alzheimer's Association, Western and Central Washington State Chapter, and previously managing Senior Rights Assistance at Senior Services.

Following are highlights of my recent conversation with Rowena:

Age 55+ Employment Resource Center job counselor Paul Valenti helps re-craft and strengthen resumes, advises jobseekers on ways to project self-confidence, and more.

"Our clients come from all over Seattle. They come into the office and we also get 40 to 50 calls each day. We offer a lot of direct programs and services, including long-time programs like Senior Information & Assistance, the Age 55+ Employment Resource Center, Seniors Training Seniors computer classes, senior coffee hours, and Gold and FLASH Cards.

"We've also introduced new programs, including SHIBA (Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors), Senior Rights Assistance (legal information and attorney referrals), and in-person assistance related to the Affordable Care Act—information to help those who are not Medicare-eligible understand their options through the Washington Benefits Exchange, and referrals to Apple Health (expanded Medicaid) for those who are eligible.

"We offer great opportunities for older adults to learn more about local government and to engage with public officials. Our monthly Senior Coffee Hours are held on the third Thursday of each month at the Central Building. In addition, we schedule several Community Coffee Hours out in neighborhoods.

Senior Information & Assistance advocate Alain Rhone sees clients with complex needs, often related to scarcity and financial insecurity.

"For the most part, Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens clients are age 50 or older, but we're seeing quite a few younger clients who have disabilities. They come in to request FLASH cards.

"Concerns related to lack of adequate resources and financial insecurity top of the list of reasons our clients come into the Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens. We are seeing an increasing number of clients who need affordable housing. Many older adults are paying half their income in rent. Some are paying out 75 percent to 80 percent of their income for housing.

"An increasing number of so-called 'retirement' age clients are seeking work, not because they are bored at home but to make ends meet. Our job counselors know what it's like. They've been there, they care, and they're committed to help. We are continually looking for creative ways to assist clients with complex, hard to solve problems.

"Seattle has a Utility Discount Program that provides seniors and others who have a limited income with a 60 percent discount on their City Light bills. This is a tremendous benefit for those who qualify, and definitely something anyone on a low or moderate income should look into. The program is working to make more people aware of this incredible benefit that is unique to Seattle.

 

Rye introduced Mayor Ed Murray at a Community Coffee Hour in June 2014.

"Seattle is a great city for aging in place if you have an adequate income to meet your needs and you're not struggling to keep a roof over your head, pay medical and dental bills, and put food on the table. I'm hopeful that Seattle will find a way to solve serious issues—lack of affordable housing, widening income disparity, and a growing number of people who cannot get their basic needs met.

"That will take individual citizens letting their legislators—at every level of government—know that people are the priority. It is a huge contradiction that we have the largest senior population today we've ever had and, not only is funding not keeping pace, in some instances funding has been reduced or cut, hurting the most vulnerable."

And what would you do if you had a magic wand?

"I'd begin by making certain that everyone had a safe and comfortable place to live and their basic needs met. There is no magic wand, so older adults, families and friends must make their voices heard and work hard to make that happen."

The Seattle Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens is located in the Central Building (810 3rd Avenue, between Columbia and Marion Streets in downtown Seattle). Help is available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To contact the office, call 206-684-0500 (TTY/TDD 206-233-2778) or e-mail seniors@seattle.gov.

For more information, visit their website at www.seattle.gov/seniors. To visit Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens Facebook page, click here.

Contributor Irene Stewart is a planner at Aging and Disability Services—ADS, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County and a division of the Seattle Human Services Department. Among many responsibilities, she edits AgeWise King County on behalf of the ADS Advisory Council. Irene directed the Seattle Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens from March 2004 to January 2011, and enjoys working with Rowena to promote the resources offered there.

Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens

Links to Programs and Services

Senior Information & Assistance
Free, professional and confidential information and referrals

Age 55+ Employment Resource Center
Job list and other employment services for residents age 55+

FLASH Card for Adults with Disabilities
Discounts for residents age 18–59 with a qualifying disability

Gold Card for Healthy Aging
Discounts for residents age 60+

Senior Coffee Hours
3rd Thursdays

Seniors Training Seniors
Computer classes designed for older adults are offered in Wallingford, Greenwood, Lake City, southeast Seattle, and downtown.

Co-located:

Utility Discount Program (City of Seattle)
For qualified Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities customers

By appointment:

Senior Rights Assistance
Legal and consumer assistance

SHIBA (Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors)
Free, unbiased and confidential assistance with Medicare and health care choices

Washington Apple Health
Washington's Medicaid program

Washington Benefits Exchange
Online health plan finder for Washington state residents and small business owners