Racism is an Aging Issue

Diverse group of people sitting in a circle of chairs. One person is reaching over to touch the shoulder of the next in a caring way.

On Friday, January 14, the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services held its annual retreat. We met virtually and spent a considerable amount of time getting to know each other better.

Following a fun—and sometimes hilarious—small group icebreaker, we broke into two groups—those who identify as a person of color and those who do not—and reflected on what we were taught about race and racism early in life, and learnings that have helped us to understand our identities and relationships today.

Mary Mitchell, interim director at Aging and Disability Services (ADS), opened the segment on race. I appreciated her commitment to placing race front and center in the agency’s work.

I want to thank Sariga Santhosh, who staffs the ADS Advisory Council year-round, and her colleague, Sarah Demas, who serves on the data team, for facilitating the group discussions. Both did a superb job of fielding questions and concerns and speaking from their own experience.

It’s beneficial to be intentional about working relationships, and it’s beneficial to talk about race. Each of us has life experiences in which race was a central feature—some daily, others frequently. Each of us experiences race, power, and equity in different ways.

It’s also beneficial to look at data.

Nearly two years ago, Ava Frisinger (then chair of the ADS Advisory Council) wrote, “We must dismantle racism. Everyone has a role to play. At times it will be uncomfortable, but everyone in any position of power needs to look at their own decisions and actions on an ongoing basis and remove barriers to equity for all people.” Her article, “Dismantling Racism Requires Action from Everyone,” went on to look at data—who is served by Aging and Disability Services.

In the same issue, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Patty Hayes, who was then director of Public Health—Seattle & King County, shared “Racism is a Public Health Crisis: The Transformation Starts Here. It Starts with Us.” This is as true today as it was two years ago.

Later that year, Public Health published “The Race Gap in King County: Racism as a Public Health Crisis” online. I highly recommend viewing the data presentation linked on that page, which illustrates—through data related to infant mortality, food insecurity, educational attainment, health insurance, housing status, wealth (or lack thereof), and even COVID-19 cases—that lifetime adversity results in lower life expectancies for Black people and negative quality of life. Racism is an aging issue.

I know the City of Seattle and King County have ramped up focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion over the past 20 years. There is still much work to be done.

As we talk about racial equity and as advocates for older adults, people with disabilities, and caregivers, I think it’s valuable to ask questions—of ourselves, agency representatives, and lawmakers—similar to those found in the City of Seattle’s Racial Equity Toolkit:

  • What are the racial demographics of those impacted by the issue?
  • What does data tell you about existing racial inequities that should be taken into consideration?
  • How will the policy, initiative, program, or budget issue increase or decrease racial equity? What are potential unintended consequences? What benefits may result?
  • How will you address the impacts (including unintended consequences) on racial equity?
  • How will you raise awareness about racial inequity related to this issue?

Let’s get comfortable talking about racial equity—and asking and answering impactful questions. Let’s find common ground upon which we can help all people grow up and grow old gracefully.

Joe HaileyContributor Joe Hailey chairs the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services. He welcomes input from readers via e-mail ( and encourages anyone interested in joining the ADS Advisory Council to consider applying when positions open. For more information, visit

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of AgeWise King County.