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Volunteers help fellow elders thrive

Posted: June 14, 2009 10:19 p.m.
Updated: June 15, 2009 4:55 a.m.

New graduates of the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center's Volunteer Peer Counselor Program pose with Supportive Services Director SuzAnn Nelsen, seated front left, and Judith Harris, seated front right, the psychotherapist who facilitated the in-depth three-session training program.

"I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, to be compassionate. It is, after all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all." - Leo Rotsten, American writer, 1908-1977

Growing old and living independently can be a mixed bag. On one hand, you want to remain in the comfort, dignity and familiarity of your own home.

You also desperately want to avoid institutionalization - generally a guaranteed (and very impersonal) prelude to the closing of life's final chapter.

On the other hand, you know that living alone, especially amid mounting age-related challenges, can be stressful and depressing. Sometimes you feel isolated.

Your health and activity level is not what it used to be. Many of your loved ones have died or are busy with their own lives.

You crave having someone to talk to, a person who's comforting and engages your mind, someone who checks on your well-being.

Enter the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center's Supportive Services Department's Volunteer Peer Counselor program.

Comprised primarily of caring seniors helping seniors in need, the program strives to maintain the homebound or disabled elderly in their residences safely, securely, and for the longest time possible.

That dedicated department recently "graduated" 25 volunteer peer counselors who, under the tutelage of veteran psychotherapist Judith Harris, learned much about therapeutically reaching out to others and lifting spirits.

To offer this enlightenment, Harris conducted three consecutive weekend seminars at the Senior Center.

Being an excellent listener is a main factor in effective counseling, whether it's a relative, friend, or stranger you're assisting, Harris said.

"Good peer counselors have to like doing counseling," Harris said. "They have to like listening to people's stories - they're optimistic believing that life is a comedy rather than a tragedy even though you don't get out of it alive."

Harris, who leads several support groups at the Senior Center, focused the program on the emotional, social and physical needs of older people.

Much of the work, she said, relies on compassion and concerned curiosity.

"Good counselors have to be like detectives and explorers, people who like to solve mysteries and figure out how life works," she said. "They don't just take things at face value, they don't assume that they understand at the beginning, and they don't assume everyone is alike or that one solution fits all."

The extensive training included:

n An overview of psychological and physical symptoms associated with the elderly.
n Stress reduction/management.
n Solution-focused interviewing techniques.
n Reflective listening and improved communication skills.
n Grief work (recognizing the many forms of losses; releasing emotions; developing new skills; reinvesting emotional energy in the present).
n Senior strength assessment (personal strengths, family strengths, problem assessment).
n Life review (reaffirming that one's life has had meaning and purpose; aimed at maintaining and encouraging mental and emotional health).
n Information on community resources.
n The "instillation" of hope.
n The therapist, a humorous, down-to-earth sage who herself has survived cancer and other life trials, also helped volunteers identify ways to enhance their own aging process with pragmatism, optimism, esteem, and self-acceptance.

Along with those teachings, she shared many astute quotes (including those from the Talmud, Nietzsche, Confucius, Arthur Miller, Lily Tomlin, and Woody Allen), each aimed at clarifying life's meaning and burdens on more bearable, understandable, and, sometimes laughable, terms.

"The better you are, the better you feel about yourself, the better you'll be able to help somebody else," Harris said.

Accepting that life isn't always fair is a must for this mind-set, she said.

"The fair," Harris playfully reminded everyone, "is in Pomona."

Adopting a thankful heart is also mandatory, and at any age, she added.

"If you don't know the language of gratitude, you will never be on speaking terms with happiness," Harris stated.

The new volunteer peer counselors will now conduct home visits and reassurance telephone calls to the homebound elderly.

They'll also co-facilitate the Senior Center's "Live, Love, & Laugh" discussion groups which provide socialization, support and encouragement to seniors, many of them widowed.

As well, volunteer peer counselors will assist in the Senior Center's busy Supportive Services office, and with Visually Impaired Services program, which offers assistance and support to those with vision loss.

Richard King, a retired city of Los Angeles employee, said he got a great deal out of the training.

"It was wonderful, very insightful," said the 70-year-old. "I'm looking forward to applying what I have learned."

When asked what he expects to receive from helping others, King said: "The self-satisfaction of feeling I'm giving back what has been given to me in life. There's a saying, ‘If you want to keep [it], you have to give it away.'"

Kathy Kombrinck, a 64-year-old Newhall grandmother, said the training will be of benefit for herself and in relating to neighbors in her senior apartment building where the average age is 78.

"This will help me better understand what it means to be a senior and cope with everyday life," Kombrinck said. "There are a lot of things we accept as the way it is with old age when it's really not. We tend to judge too quickly and assume we have a problem answered when we don't because perhaps we haven't truly discovered the problem, and perhaps the person we are speaking with hasn't discovered it either."

Ellen Hon, whose husband, Santa Clarita Valley attorney, Dan Hon, died 12 years ago, said Harris' classes were instructive.

"This has been delightful and interesting, and it will help me make a positive difference in helping others," Hon said.

Marilyn Bennion Miller - a now-remarried former widow in her 80's who has attended Harris' support groups - praised the program's facilitator and overall mission.

"I love hearing Judy," the smiling, newly minted volunteer peer counselor said. "She has so many wonderful ideas about life and the way we think and act - and I'd like to be able to help others now with what I have learned from her. Getting older can be lonely and if we can be of help to each other, I want to be a part of that."

For information about the Senior Center's Supportive Services Department and the Volunteer Peer Counselor Program, contact (661) 255-1588. The Senior Center's main number is (661) 259-9444.


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