Before Google, there was Extension — one place where people could go to find out anything from how to can tomatoes to the identification of an insect they found crawling in the house.
At the K-State Research and Extension office in Dickinson County, each Extension agent has their own specialty.
With the addition of Myra Bonilla to the staff, Renae Riedy, family and consumer science agent who specializes in family resource management was able to shift her focus from a broad range of health and wellness topics to issues related to the older population.
“Since Myrna has come on board with us in 2020, my position was divided and … became the department on aging,” she said. “I really appreciate having someone else to help because she’s able to focus primarily on nutrition, and we get those questions fairly regularly.”
Bonilla started just as pandemic shutdowns were sweeping the country causing the workload in the Extension office to get overwhelming.
“She was keeping up on the CDC recommendations,” Riedy said. “She was keeping up on tons of things — I felt like we were all drowning as it was, in terms of family consumer science, because we were trying to help people find resources to feed their families, ‘How do we take care of this?’ ‘How do we get help for mom when I’m three states away?’ I can’t imagine what the beginning of COVID would have been like if we did not have another person on staff.”
Now that some of the pandemic issues are under control, Bonilla has taken on some of the health and wellness topics leaving Riedy to focus on a part of family and consumer science that she has a passion for.
“Today I taught Stay Strong, Stay Healthy,” she said recently. “I do family finances, which is something I really believe strongly in and is definitely a huge interest to me.”
Stay Strong, Stay Healthy is a 16-session, 8-week exercise class for people 50 and older. Riedy teaches two classes on Mondays and Wednesdays — at 8:30 a.m. in Herington and at 10 a.m. in Navarre.
On the family finance side of the aisle she heads up a volunteer tax assistance program. There has to be at least two people to make the program run — one who will help with the taxes and one to review.
“In my case I have two volunteers who have a lot of experience doing taxes,” she said. “A lot of the time I’m the reviewer.”
While tax assistance is a seasonal program, one of the topics she helps people with year-round is Medicare.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what time of the year,” she said. “I probably get three to five calls a week from people getting ready to go on Medicare. Open enrollment is in the fall and I’ll see around 200 people during that season, about half-hour appointments per person.”
During those appointments she’ll go over prescription plans, help people understand Medicare and help them find the lowest cost options for their needs.
Also year-round is helping people with estate planning. Oftentimes, that requires difficult conversations that families need to have.
“When there hasn’t been conversations, sometimes things can turn ugly,” she said. “That’s absolutely what no person wants to leave behind — they don’t want to leave their family fighting more because they’re already dealing with grief.”
Another program she helps oversee is one Dickinson County Commissioners asked the Extension office to help with. In 2016, the Area Agency on Aging left Dickinson County leaving a void, she said.
At one time there was a caregivers list — a list of people and businesses that were available to help seniors with some of the household chores, which they were unable to do. In 2017, a few months after she started in the Dickinson County Extension office, the Commission asked if she could help recreate and maintain that list.
People fill out a form, which states what they are willing and able to do. It can be anything from mowing the lawn, cleaning up tree branches, handyman chores or just checking up on the elderly.
The Extension office runs the background checks and keeps the list updated.
“We don’t do any vetting in terms of whether you should hire this person because they’re great at (what they say they’ll do),” she said. “This is basically people helping people stay in their homes and helping people to continue to work or help with the caregiving responsibilities.”
All of the tasks, which she now handles, has brought Riedy full circle. Before she started with Extension, in 2014 in Marion County, she worked in early childhood but she gets a sense of satisfaction working with the older population and can help them with areas of their lives that she is passionate about.
“I have an interest in overall wellness — financial health definitely but I also love teaching those exercise classes and I feel like I have a good connection with our aging population,” she said. “The real intrinsic benefit (of being) an agent, and doing this work is that we’re able to save people money.”
For all the rewards working in Extension gives, there are challenges.
“For me, the big one is just keeping all the plates spinning,” she said. “I might have this going but I’m planning for the next thing.”
That challenge can also be a reward.
“The other thing about extension is, at least for me, I just never know what the next question is gonna be,” she said. “That makes it fun. We’re always learning.”