Jefferson County is the oldest county by age in Washington state and ninth oldest in the country with a median age of 58 in 2018.
Jefferson County is the oldest county by age in Washington state and ninth oldest in the country with a median age of 58 in 2018. Thirty-six percent of Washington state residents who are 65 or older live in Jefferson County.
Local organizations that serve the elderly are seeing demand for services rise as the population continues to age, pushing some organizations like ECHHO to the breaking point.
ECHHO, the Ecumenical Christian Helping Hand Organization, is a non-profit based in Port Townsend that aims to help the sick and elderly in Jefferson County live independently by providing transportation and medical equipment at no cost.
Anyone over the age of 55 who does not have reliable transportation to go to the grocery store, the food bank or medical appointments can schedule a ride with ECHHO. A volunteer driver who is vetted and insured will pick up riders, take them to where they need to go and bring them back home.
In 2018, ECHHO helped 1,345 individuals in Jefferson County for a total of 4,254 services rendered. Based on the percent increase in services from 2017 to 2018, ECHHO estimates there will be a demand for 3500 rides by 2022.
In their uptown headquarters, whole rooms are brimming with walkers, wheelchairs, crutches, knee scooters, toilet risers, IV stands and canes. People in need of equipment – anything from hospital beds to bath supports – can request it on loan at no cost. In the basement a workshop is filled with every part imaginable including extra wheels, grips, nuts and bolts to repair damaged equipment.
The organization is appealing for donations and volunteers, Nancy Budd-Garvan, director of development and community relations, said. The organization’s main costs like transportation and insurance are rising, she said, as the demand for their services also increases.
An aging population combined with a trend in the medical industry to focus on outpatient care and life-lengthening procedures means organizations like ECHHO are working overtime.
One challenge is that most of the organization’s 70 or so active volunteers are retirees, she said. As the years go by, slowly the volunteers may not be able to continue to drive and will instead become ECHHO clients.
They have looked into partnering with local youth organizations and schools to gain younger volunteers and offer community service hours, board chairman Mark Getzendaner said, but paying the insurance costs for those under 25 is not feasible.
The organization receives federal funding from the Olympic Area Agency on Aging and state funding from the Washington State Department of Transportation. The state grant money, Budd-Garvan said, comes from a special transportation fund focused on helping underserved and special needs populations like the elderly.
Getzendaner said another worry on the horizon for funding is the passing of Washington state initiative 976, which will cap car tab fees at $30 across the state. The initiative passed with a 53 percent majority.
Jefferson County was one of four Washington counties to vote “No” on the initiative with 60 percent opposing it.
Local and state governmental organizations like Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation have said it will greatly reduce state transportation budgets, causing a reduction in services across the state.
King County and the City of Seattle filed suit against the initiative in November arguing its wording on the ballot misled voters and goes against the state constitution. Most recently a state judge blocked the initiative from taking effect on Dec. 5 to await the conclusion of the suit, which is expected to reach the state Supreme Court.
With the potential impacts to WSDOT’s budget estimated in the hundreds of millions, Getzendaner said ECHHO is worried they could see their funding reduced or eliminated.
“We always fear that the first things that get cut are the smaller operations that help a special group of people,” he said.
The local chapter of ECHHO was started in 1997 by members of the Port Townsend First Presbyterian Church as a supportive service to connect volunteers to seniors who needed help around their house or short rides. Today they have expanded into no-cost medical equipment loans and reimburse their drivers for mileage.
What sets ECHHO apart from other local organizations dedicated to offering transportation to those in need, Getzendaner said, is that it offers rides out of the county to as far as Seattle for a specialized treatment and it is always at no cost.
Volunteer Nancy Krill said she has been giving rides for the past four or five years. At first she was only doing one ride a week or less, she said, now she does up to three rides a week and will go as far as Poulsbo or Bremerton.
“There is a whole population of people out there who need help and if you don’t volunteer, you may never know they exist,” she said.
Becoming a driver and scheduling your first ride is easy she said. Volunteers get emails with lists of rides that need drivers in the coming weeks and from there volunteers can choose which ones to take.
There is no minimum ride requirement so volunteers can give as much or as little time as they are able. Even just one ride can make a difference and is appreciated, Krill said.