“Marion County and the leaders of Marion County back in the early ’60s might have had an idea of what they were doing, but they would probably be amazed if they were here today to see the fruits of their work and the investment of their time and energy.
“It has resulted in a national network of services that benefit older Americans and family care givers.”
Different times then
Those were the days before Medicare, Medicaid and most other support programs now available for seniors.
In 1959, a representative from the Ford Foundation contacted the Kansas Department of Social Welfare, now known as Social and Rehabilitation Services, to ask if Kansas would be interested in such a grant—with the stipulation that the recipient be a volunteer organization eligible for tax exemption.
Four counties—Marion, Marshall, Brown and Ottawa—were considered. Marion County was selected because it was the only one that had a trained social worker to help guide the program.
Upon hearing the county had been selected to apply for the grant, commissioners George S. Jost, George Merilatt and Ed Nicholas, who also served on the county’s welfare board, appointed three people—Dorothy DuVall of Marion, Wesley Loewen of Hillsboro and Dorman Becker of Durham—to form the organization that incorporated in March 1960 as Golden Years Inc. of Marion County.
The first senior center was established in Hillsboro, with the first meeting on Feb. 22, 1961. A year later, centers opened in Florence, Peabody and Burns. By August 1962, Marion and Goessel had followed suit.
The model emerging in Marion County was discussed at White House national conferences on aging in 1961 and 1971, according to Govert Walters.
“During those times, anybody who studies history would see that the poverty levels and health needs of seniors were something to really be concerned about,” she said.
“The way that Marion County leaders proposed to organize themselves really has withstood the test of time. It is replicated in almost every county throughout the United States.”
Out of the 1961 conference came passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965, legislation that led to many of the government-sponsored program existing today.
The 1971 conference led to the establishment of nutrition programs for seniors as well as area agencies on aging to work with counties in the administration of public programs.
After Marion County voters passed a 1-mill property tax levy in 1976 to fund a service program for seniors, centers were developed in Lehigh, Tampa, Lincolnville, Durham and Ramona by 1979.
In 1978, the Golden Years Inc. merged with the county’s Council on Aging to form Senior Citizens of Marion County, the organization that continues today.
The Lehigh organization decided to disband in 2004, but senior centers continue to function in the remaining 10 communities. Four of them—Hillsboro, Marion, Peabody and Goessel—also serve as nutrition sites, where U.S. Department of Agriculture food commodities are distributed throughout the county.
County mill-levy funds were used in part to launch the county’s Department for Elderly in 1978. It continues to function today as the Department on Aging to coordinate services between the community centers and serve as a liaison between county commissioners and the Senior Citizens of Marion County’s 12-member board.
Over the years, the county’s senior centers, with funding help through the North-Central Flint Hills Area on Agency, have tried to meet the needs of seniors in the areas of income assistance, information and referral, nutrition services, health services and treatment, homemaker services and transportation.
The impact of senior centers in this county has been profound, according to Noreen Weems, who was director of the Department for Elderly from 1980 to 2007.
“I feel like they have played a big role in the communities,” Weems said. “It was a gathering spot for seniors to come and have fun, food and fellowship, and also programs of interest and education and entertainment.
“What I have really seen over the years is seniors helping seniors,” she added. “We could never do the programs at each of our senior centers if it wasn’t for all the volunteerism that goes on.”
Gayla Ratzlaff, who is Weems’ successor as coordinator of the Department on Aging, said offering a balanced meal five days a week has been an essential service.
“The other thing is to provide socialization for people and an opportunity to get out and be with people,” she said.
Other benefits of senior centers are harder to quantify but just as important, according to Govert Walters.
“What the different senior centers and organizations like the Marion County Senior Citizens and the Marion County Department for Elderly have been doing is that they help add value to the experience of the older person,” she said.
“They provide entree for these people to feel honored and to feel valued in their community for the people that they are. These are people who have made major contributions to our communities, to our state, to our nation and to our world.”
Particularly unique is that these seniors organized themselves in order to meet the needs they and their neighbor shared.
No one is better qualified to do so, according to Govert Walters.
“We’ve all been a baby, we’ve all been an infant, we’ve grown to be school kids and if we’re lucky we get through adolescence and move into young adulthood and into our middle years,” she said. “We all understand very clearly what it means to do that.
“It’s more difficult to understand the challenges that our older family members face because those of us who aren’t there yet haven’t had the chance to walk in their shoes.”
In 1960, Golden Years Inc. of Marion County pioneered the effort to organize seniors to fill those shoes themselves.
“Marion County still has a wonderful, model network to be praised and that works in communities throughout the county,” Govert Walters said. “But it also has been a model not just here in Kansas, but it helped other communities throughout the nation.
“Leaders who saw the good things that developed in Marion County said, ‘Oh, this really could work. You can get communities and counties organized to help their older friends and neighbors and family caregivers.’
“Without senior centers in our communities, certainly the lives of our senior citizens and our caregivers would be diminished. There would be a loss that really can’t be quantified.”