The Dickinson County Extension Office is hoping to add a county agent who will help senior citizens deal with a variety of issues.
Extension staff visited with Dickinson County Commissioners about the proposal during a recent work session on the proposed 2020 budget.
“We are basically looking at a fourth county agent position that’s focused on what we’re calling adult development and aging,” explained Jill Martinson, local 4-H Youth Development agent.
In 2017, the extension office was asked to provide additional services and education for Dickinson County’s aging population to help “fill the gap” after the county’s Department on Aging was dissolved.
The department was closed because fewer seniors were using the services offered by the Task Force on Aging and it was believed that technological innovations (computer sign up) had made it easier for seniors to access services on their own. However, it soon became obvious that “government forms had changed to such a degree” that people needed assistance to complete them.
One of the biggest challenges for many seniors — then and now — is trying to figure out Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people age 65 and older. The application forms are long and confusing and trying to get help from “hotlines” is nearly impossible.
The same often holds true for Medicaid, a program that helps with medical costs for some people with limited income and resources.
So in April 2017 Dickinson County Extension began offering help to senior citizens. It was a natural addition for Extension since the office had been offering SHICK (Senior Health Insurance Counseling of Kansas) for years.
SHICK helps seniors choose their Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.
“We already had a standing in the community for having done that,” Martinson explained. “The (county) commissioners said ‘you’re already doing this and people recognize that work being done in your office’.”
Just choosing the right prescription drug plan can be a challenge, explained Family & Consumer Sciences Agent Renae Reidy.
“It’s a huge decision that’s going to affect their life,” Reidy noted. “Some of Medicare affects their entire life, but Part D affects them year to year. I think sometimes people need a little bit of reassurance as well.”
As far as demographics, Dickinson County is aging. County statistics compiled in February 2019 from census, Health Matters and EPA data show 19 percent of the county’s population is age 65 years plus, while 24 percent is under the age of 18.
The original plan was for Extension to offer senior counseling on a part-time basis, but staff soon learned the service was in high demand.
“We found out it’s a whole lot bigger than what can be done part time by an assistant,” Martinson said. “There’s a lot more expertise and education that’s needed.”
During the Part D enrollment period from mid-October through early December, Reidy and the Extension office saved county residents an estimated $145,000. Reidy said she is unsure how many people were counseled during that time period, but estimates about 150 people came in.
“I would guess on an average week we probably field five to 10 questions or appointments on different situations that I would say are Medicare or Medicaid only,” Reidy said.
Another piece that was missing was a way to connect people needing help with the people who could provide it, so Extension created a vetted “caregivers” list.
Perhaps a senior needs transportation to a doctor’s appointment, someone to cut down a tree or someone to provide other care or help. People interested in providing those services can sign up with Extension and the office conducts a background check. Once the service provider is approved, their names are placed on the caregiver list.
Martinson said a list had been provided previously, but no screenings had been done on the service providers.
“Our feeling is that this (senior citizens) is a vulnerable enough population that there needed to be a level of screening done before it was just offered that these people could provide services,” Martinson said. “The service provider needs to go through the background check and be willing to do that before being put on a list that is shared with the public.”
“Then any employment or the relationship is between the provider and the people who want to hire them,” Reidy said.
The list has come in handy for those who have to “private pay.”
“We are looking to fill in the pieces of what might be helpful for people,” Reidy said. “If Medicare is going to pay for it using an agency makes a lot of sense, but when (the senior) is paying out of pocket or just needs respite care or whatever it is, we’re here to try and help make those connections for people.”
Reidy has been the agent helping seniors, whether that entails filling out reams of paperwork or calling agencies to obtain information.
“Renae will contact these agencies and people on the senior’s behalf and sometimes making those calls can take most of the afternoon to figure out what needs to be done so people can get some help -- some real answers to their questions,” Martinson said.
“So much of it is confusing. It involves money, health and all the things that make a person really anxious,” she continued. “It takes a whole lot more time than we thought it was going to. We thought it would be a part-time, 18-hour-a-week job, but it’s not.”
Besides helping seniors who visit the Extension Office, Reidy is also going out and presenting programs to seniors. Just recently she presented a “Stay Strong, Stay Healthy” class at the Abilene Senior Center and has offered the class previously at other locations in Dickinson County.
Extension staff also visit county senior centers on a regular basis.
“We try to talk at two or three senior centers usually once a month, about nutrition, whatever the latest scam might be, whatever might be new with Medicare so folks are getting a little bit of information,” Reidy said
New agent position
If county commissioners approve a new adult development and aging position, the job would be entirely county funded, Martinson said. The three current agent positions are funded by Kansas State University through K-State Extension.
“We’ve studied and we’re hopeful the university will recognize it as a full agent position to have access to specialists,” Martinson said.
While the job would be new to Dickinson County Extension, it is not new in other parts of the state, Martinson said.
“It’s up to us to tailor what the needs are as a county, but there are adult development and aging agents present in other counties and districts,” she added. “They are primarily in districts because they tend to be bigger and have more agents for specialization.”
Each year Extension and other entities present their annual budget requests to commissioners. This year Extension asked commissioners for $322,450. That amount is $49,950 higher than last year’s request to cover the cost of the additional agent.
If the commission decides to fund the position it would begin in the 2020 budget year.
Martinson said it’s been gratifying to local staff who have been able to help senior citizens.
“We’ll get a phone call and the person will say ‘I don’t know if you can help me, but...’ and we can say ‘yes, we can help you with that. You have called the right place’. They let you know they already have tried so many places and struck out,” Martinson said.
“To be able to be the place that says ‘yes’ is very nice,” she added.
Contact Kathy Hageman at email@example.com.