When people are in need, Gladys and Ken Cooper often are there. Throughout their community, they are known as honest and respected people who have very big and kind hearts.

Gladys works at a local agency called Aging Partners as their first service/information and referral supervisor, assisting older adults, their families and caregivers with a variety of resources. Her knowledge, expertise and experience allow her and her team to meet with clients, assess their needs and assist them in accessing the vast social services network in the community, county and state.

“She’s very kind and easy to get along with; very sympathetic to a person’s personal situation; finding solutions to everyday problems,” said David Norris, Aging Partners public information specialist.

Experience gained from life circumstances

In 1981, as a newly divorced mother, Gladys relied on Food Stamps (now SNAP), housing assistance and Medicaid for her and her daughter. “That was the hardest thing for me to do,” she said. “I came from a working-class family and had worked since I was 16. And when I went to the Department of Health and Human Services to apply, I was crying like a baby, due to the shame I associated with applying.”

For four years, the assistance she received helped her get through college. “I knew in my mind I wasn’t going to be on assistance forever,” she said. “My goal was to get my education and go back to the work field. I wanted to show my daughter that while tough times come, you work if you have the opportunity to work. I didn’t want her to think this was a way of life, but it was only temporary. When I went back to work, I could support the next person through public benefit programs supported by my taxes.”

Gladys graduated with her social work degree from Union College. Having a good relationship with her grandparents, she saw it as a perfect fit to serve her practicum at Aging Partners, previously known as the LIFE Office, and she enjoyed it. “I thought it would be easy to work with seniors since they were adults and would have their life together,” she said. “I was such a rookie.”

She quickly realized older adults face varying challenges just like younger adults, but with the additional stress of an aging body and mind. Many are living on a fixed income and have faced great losses.

“I realize we all have issues to deal with no matter the age, but if we carry them through life without addressing them when younger, our behaviors and attitudes can become ingrained when we become older—making it difficult to recognize the need for change or how these issues impact others who try to provide assistance,” Gladys said. She also doesn’t solely work with the older adults. She often works with their children or grandchildren, who many times have differing opinions on what is best for their loved one.

As prepared as possible

For the past 29 years, Gladys has worked screening phone calls and assessing the needs of the caller, answering questions and providing resources or referrals. Her team answers anywhere from 20-30 phone calls daily about various topics including housing, applying for Medicaid or disability, eligibility for Medicare and other programs. Calls come in mostly from older adults, their families or caregivers, but many also come from local authorities, adult protective services, doctor’s offices and concerned members of the community. The calls come from all across America, as well as Australia, Slovakia, Germany and Japan.

When talking to people who are reluctant to apply for services and benefits, Gladys relies on her past personal experience of receiving assistance. “I am sympathetic and understand how hard it can be to ask for help,” she said. “I assure them if they have worked for years paying taxes, and if they qualify for the benefits, they should apply for them. For some, it might be temporary, but others might need it to survive.”

Gladys can also empathize with caregivers since her own mother lost her sight in her 40s. And when her father got sick with multiple sclerosis, later becoming an amputee, she and her siblings became long-distance caregivers for both. Gladys and her husband would travel to Kansas to take care of her parents’ needs and ensure they got signed up for eligible services to help them remain safely in their home as long as they could.

“Many of us have come full circle in the aging process,” said Gladys. “We have become caregivers of our parents or in-laws. We know the fine line of maintaining their dignity but making sure they are safe and prepared for the latter years as much as possible.”

Giving back above and beyond

Ken and Gladys met when he helped fix her car. And 10 years later, they were able to share their experiences as young, divorced parents. “I told him if he needed someone to talk to, he could call me,” Gladys said. “He called me within the week, and he’s been calling ever since!”

They married in 1992, each with a daughter—one a teacher in Nebraska, the other a biochemist in North Carolina. Together, they have four grandchildren. Both the eldest of six kids, their strong-willed personalities and opinions often clash, but they have an easy banter. “It’s just the way we are,” Ken said.

Ken, who also has a social work degree from Union College, worked in family services for several years teaching parenting skills and anger management. He also worked for the Lincoln Council on Alcoholism and Drugs, Midland Recycling and CEDARS, a home for children. For the last seven years, he’s worked at the Center for People in Need and currently serves as facilities manager overseeing maintenance, vehicles, custodial and contractors’ work for the building. Ken volunteered his time to shovel snow through the Home Handyman program for four years for those who aren’t able to shovel their sidewalks and driveways.

But it doesn’t stop there; the Coopers are also very active at Allon Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church, where they both serve as elders. Gladys assists in community services, Prison Ministry, FoodNET, is head deaconess and serves as the church’s social worker. Ken assists as the worship leader, runs the sound board, serves on the Ministry Leadership Team and is a mentor to single parents with children. He sings in the church choir and plays the trumpet too.

“We just ask, ‘What do you need?’ and morph into whatever they want us to do,” Gladys said.

“I do it because I can help now while I’m able-bodied; one day I won’t be able to,” Ken said. Gladys echoes that sentiment.

In addition, the couple is trained in Adventist Disaster Response, working with the American Red Cross when activated to manage warehouses during disasters to receive and distribute donations. Gladys has been trained in Children’s Disaster Services, Community Emergency Response Training and has a ham radio license.

“You never know when the tables will turn; everyone needs a little help sooner or later,” she said. “We are fortunate that our jobs are in the helping business, allowing us to be helpful to many people who come our way, which allows us to remain true to our faith and beliefs.”

This article is republished with permission from the Summer 2019 edition of Living Well.