I was probably only 9 years old, but I remember plainly when my 11-year-old sister and I were sent to stay several nights with an older neighbor while her husband was in the hospital.

My mother, who was very thoughtful and perceptive even among her own busy days and problems, still took time to help others. Neighbors watched out for the older neighbors without a second thought. It was really kind of scary for me, because this dear old lady did have some difficulty with her thought processes, and they lived very frugally. She also had that dreaded change of abilities that we now scare people to death with when we say the word -- Alzheimer's.

This is truly a problem, but I believe we have caused enough consternation and panic to last well into years from now just with the thought of it.

I am sure we all have been (or will be) confronted with the "what if?" question about mom and dad or even ourselves, our husband or another loved one. What if we need more than we can take care of for ourselves or for that important other one?

Take a step back and indulge with me for a few minutes. It might be the child or other person whom we would need to turn to is not living close to us. Or perhaps there are no living relatives. What then?

We never plan on having physical problems happen. But now, we are not able to take care of cooking, cleaning and are hardly able to take care of our own physical needs.

A daughter lives 400 miles away, has a family of young children and also works as a registered nurse five days a week at the local hospital. But now, she is at our bedside as plans are being made for our dismissal. Or perhaps a family member notices help is badly needed for you to stay safely in your home. How great to have this daughter but when did the roles change?

Now switch to daughter. "How can I take care of mom at a distance and take care of my own husband and children's needs? What is my next step? How do I manage?"

Caring for an aging parent, elderly spouse, close friend or even oneself presents difficult challenges which many of us already experience or soon will.

The first and most important thing to do before a crisis confronts us is to discuss with family what our desires are in the event we need more care and assistance than we are able to give ourselves or our family member. Family members now are responsible for 80 percent of elder care. It is important for them to know where and how we, or our aging parents, prefer to live. This topic often is ignored until a crisis occurs and decisions have to be made with no idea of what the next step should be. The choice influences not only physical but also mental and emotional well-being. Where can we find help?

In 1965, Congress signed into law the "Older Americans Act" which established the Administration on Aging within the Department of Health and Human Services. This was responsible for funding Area Agencies on Aging, senior centers, Foster Grandparents, Retired Senior Volunteer Programs, and nutrition programs as well as other services to assist the frail elderly.

The act also was responsible for creating the Northwest Kansas Area Agency on Aging. The service area covers the 18 counties of northwest Kansas and approximately 18,000 square miles with a high percentage of individuals ages 60 and older as well as low-income elders. The agency, located in Hays, now is increasing their services to assist more seniors, regardless of income level. Services include programs that help seniors remain independent in their homes and communities.

Sometimes the most difficult questions are "What do I need to stay in my own home?" and "What services are available and how do I access them?" What we need now is one-stop shopping for aging needs. But where can we find it?

A public hearing on the Northwest Kansas Area Agency on Aging fiscal year 2012 area plan update was July 26 in Hays. Thirty-seven people attended: seniors, AAA board and advisory council members, senior center and meal site managers, Silver Haired Legislators, and others. Sixteen of the 18 counties served were represented. Every person received a summary of the update, AAA activities and the organization's plan for targeting at-risk populations.

On July 27, the information also was presented to the board of directors and advisory council. Following is an important entry that was included:

"The priority is to be the 'Single Point of Entry' for seniors in the 18 northwest counties of Kansas. A single point of entry is defined as the one agency that seniors contact for information or any help needed. This was determined to be the priority from surveys, and board and advisory council meetings. ... The action taken to help the senior will be determined and referred to the proper program or agency. Action will be taken on every request and as much information or help needed will be given. Cooperation with other agencies and programs will be an important factor in the success of the single point of entry concept. ... The single point of entry prevents much confusion on who, where and what to do to get help. The NWKAAA is dedicated to being the single point of entry for senior services in northwest Kansas."

A crucial element for this concept is case management of the client. Case management services ensure elder clients are made aware of all the options in community-based services and these services are coordinated on their behalf. The case manager helps locate and access the services needed, such as personal care, homemaking and other needs that assist the senior to remain at home if at all possible.

Resources for legal services, elder abuse prevention, health insurance counseling, prescription assistance and the long-term care ombudsman program also are available. If the client's income is above the guidelines, this does not prevent the service, but does include a fee.

At this time, we might be independent, healthy and active. However, at some point, one of our loved ones, or we ourselves, might require additional assistance. It is important to know that one stop help is available at the Northwest Kansas Area Agency on Aging.

Our "golden years" can be without tarnish. And the out-of-town daughter can rest assured.

Ruth Moriarity is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.