Retiree lauded for working hard on behalf of expanding senior population

SoundingsNovember 21, 2013 

Walt Bowen


Retirement means different things to different people. Take, for instance, Walt Bowen.

Bowen, 72 and a longtime Olympia resident, retired in 2008 after a 30-year career with the state Department of Social and Health Services.

He could have stayed plenty busy with his hobbies. He’s an avid and accomplished photographer and active drummer and band leader who co-directs the “America’s Classic Jazz Festival,” which takes place each June at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey.

Go back in time and there’s Bowen as manager and drummer for The Corvettes, an early 1960s, rock-and-roll band based in Olympia that played at armories, auditoriums and high schools all over the Pacific Northwest. The band, which also featured Port of Olympia Commissioner George Barner on vocals, reunited in 2000 and has played at Capitol Lakefair, the Olympia Farmers Market and private parties.

He’s also been active for years in Democratic Party politics, serving twice as chairman of the Thurston County Democratic Party. He takes great pride in having gotten out the Democratic vote in Thurston County in 2000 when U.S. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., knocked off Republican incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton by a scant 2,229 votes. Her margin of victory over Gorton in Thurston County was 7,614 votes.

But instead of immersing himself in hobbies and deeper into party politics, Bowen has taken on what amounts to yet another full-time job as president of the Washington State Senior Citizens’ Lobby, guiding 35 senior service agencies working on behalf of a rapidly growing senior population in this state.

The big difference with the new job is this: It’s all volunteer work.

For his efforts, Bowen just received AARP Washington’s top annual award for volunteer community service — the Andrus Award.

“This award acts as a symbol to the public that we can all work together for positive social change,” AARP Washington State President John Barnett said in announcing this year’s winner.

Nominating Bowen for the award was AARP volunteer Peggy Quan of Olympia.

Quan said his background as a DSHS employee and political insider has kept the Senior Lobby well connected to state legislators, state agencies and the governor’s office as the lobby works on issues of high priority to senior citizens, including health care, housing, transportation and protection of vulnerable adults.

“The Senior Lobby members don’t always agree on what position to take on a bill or agency policy,” Quan said. “Walt is skillful at gauging the temperature of the various members. He’s a consensus builder.”

“I think he’s pumped some new life into the group,” Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said. “The Senior Lobby seems more involved than before.”

“I try to help the organization understand how the political system works,” Bowen said. “I’m putting my political skills to work, but I have to be careful. I can’t be as partisan as I used to be.”

Talk to Bowen about issues facing seniors and it’s like talking to a sociology professor. He’s quick to point out that the 65-and-older crowd in this state has grown from 3 percent of the population in 1978 to 13 percent today and is projected to grow to 20 percent by 2030.

The population explosion is both an opportunity and a challenge. People can expect to live 20 — even 30 — years after the traditional retirement age of 65. But with longevity can come serious health problems that threaten seniors’ financial security.

Studies show that 25 percent of the seniors in this state have savings of less than $25,000, which is a slippery slope into poverty and greater reliance on budget-strapped safety net services offered by the state and federal governments. Only about 66 percent of the nation’s workforce reports having retirement savings.

That’s one of the reasons Bowen places a lot of emphasis on educating middle-aged workers about their future lives as senior citizens. He recommends that anyone around the AARP-eligible age of 50 have a good grasp on potential health issues and understand how important it is to save for retirement.

“Today, old is 90 to 95, not 65 like it was for previous generations,” he said.

As we talked in his office on Capitol Way with the state Capitol looming a short walk away, Bowen praised our state’s emphasis on keeping seniors living independently as long as possible, but voiced concern that it’s a system threatened by budget cuts and overly reliant on some 900,000 unpaid caregivers, including family members caring for each other.

“We took 30 years to build a senior care continuum that’s recognized as one of the top two or three in the nation, but it’s fragile,” he said. “How do we keep what we’ve got and plan for the next 20 years of an expanding senior population?”

I turned 65 last month. I think the question Bowen poses is an important one to answer.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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