Ratzlaff settling in as county advocate for senior services

Gayla Ratzlaff says the door to her office is always open to anyone who need the services of the Department for Elderly. Her office is located in the Marion Senior Center.

Gayla Ratzlaff feels every step through life has helped prepare her for her role as the newly appointed coordinator for Marion County?s Department for Elderly.

Ratzlaff will be the first to tell you the job is a good fit for her.

?I?ve always enjoyed older people,? she said. ?I spent time with my father?s parents out on their farm in Dickinson County. I enjoyed hearing their stories. It was cool to hear them, even when sometimes it was for the second time.?

But Ratzlaff, 51, also relates to people who are a little closer to her own age, the 40- to 55-year old group, who think aging to 65 to 100 years looks frightening.

Ratzlaff said she likes to reassure them life won?t be over then. Instead, it can be a beginning. She said she has appreciated meeting older persons who are pursuing an interest they enjoyed early in life but didn?t have time to pursue because of raising children or working.

Ratzlaff cited as an example a 65-plus woman she knew who picked up drawing and painting again after many years.

?It can be a new start for many people, finally being able to do what you really want to do for the first time in life?if the present financial climate doesn?t get in the way of their pursuits,? she said.

Ratzlaff has worked much of her career as a social worker for the elderly, and is a longtime resident of Marion County and Hillsboro.

Husband Don is editor of the Hillsboro Free Press and their children, Graham 23, and Emily, 21 are Hillsboro High School graduates.

Graham recently graduated from Kansas State University and will be teaching math this fall at Goddard, while Emily and husband Cooper Arnold, are both students at the University of Kansas.

Ratzlaff came to Tabor College in the fall of 1975 to pursue a degree in social work. Upon graduation, she worked for several years at Bethel Deaconess Hospital in Newton, one of two hospitals that later joined to form Newton Medical Center.

Her primary responsibility as the social worker was to work with patients, mostly elderly and their families, in setting up services once they were dismissed from the hospital. Since the majority of her work was with the elderly, she decided to pursue a master?s degree in gerontology from Wichita State.

In 1989, Ratzlaff returned to the work force as social worker at Hillsboro Community Medical Center, where she worked for 19 years on behalf of both the hospital and long-term care unit.

Since starting her new role as coordinator, Ratzlaff has maintained the programs already in place. She sees herself as a resource person to the county.

?I hope people will feel free to call when they have a question and don?t know who to call,? she said. ?If I don?t know the answer, I will find the answer for them.?

Another part of her responsibilities is being a liaison to the 10 senior centers in Marion County.

?I have enjoyed serving as an ex-officio member on the Senior Citizens of Marion County Inc. Board of Directors,? she said. ?This has been a great opportunity to see seniors continuing to be active in their community through the services and programs the senior centers offer.?

Ratzlaff said she appreciates the work done by Noreen Weems in her 25 years as director.

?Noreen laid the foundation and built this department,? Ratzlaff said. ?Due to the solid foundation she built, the department and I can only benefit from that work.

?I want to listen to what seniors say they need, because from there, programs will be enhanced and new ones can emerge.?

During her first three months on the job, Ratzlaff said she has been learning about the department, but also thinking about the future and the arrival of the ?boomer? generation.

?In 2011 the boomer generation will begin to enter retirement, and their mere numbers will put a higher demand on services and possibly different kinds of services,? Ratzlaff said. ?The boomers have had better nutrition, better health care, and more access to information sources their entire lives.?

Ratzlaff expects that generation of seniors will come with different expectations than current generation have had. The challenge will be to maintain programs that are meeting the needs of present seniors, but also learning and listening to what future seniors will need.

Ratzlaff said she is grateful to for staff members already working in the department.

She described volunteer Virginia Downing as an invaluable resource of information about services and making contact with those resources.

?Virginia attended the first training for SHICK (Senior Health Insurance Counseling for Kansas), so she is a veteran in senior health care knowledge,? Ratzlaff said.

Lanell Hett, transportation coordinator and office manager, has helped orient Ratzlaff to the everyday operation of the department and has introduced her to the seniors of the county.

Ratzlaff said she feels good about the first weeks in the department, and expects good things to continue as she learn more about the job and the needs of the seniors the department serves.

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