Seniors counsel peers on ‘challenges of aging and life’

Counselors help peers deal with grief, depression, independent living and more
By: Sena Christian, Staff Reporter
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For more information on Placer County’s Senior Peer Counseling program or to speak with a counselor, call (530) 886-3413.

One thing volunteers in Placer County’s Senior Peer Counseling program agree on is the surprise they felt upon learning of the multitude of issues seniors struggle to overcome.

Turns out, life doesn’t get easier with age. Program volunteers often understand this firsthand, as they too are seniors.

“I never dreamed that elderly people can get themselves into a diversity of terrible predicaments,” said volunteer Bud Toole, of Roseville.

Toole, 74, has been counseling clients as a volunteer since 2005 and notes that some of the issues experienced by his peers are “quite sad.” The program is under the umbrella of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. Clients must be at least 55 years old and live in Placer County. Counseling is free and provided in the client’s home by trained volunteers.

“What’s different about our program is these are their peers,” said Coordinator Tom Drake.

The average age of a volunteer — they currently have about 20 — is 70 years old, he said. They counsel on issues such as grief, depression, family conflict, marital problems, substance abuse, financial stress and independent living.

Toole first read about the program in his local newspaper. He had retired in 1999 — after 21 years in the U.S. Air Force and another two decades working for the county — and reached a point where he wasn’t busy enough and needed something to do.

“It’s really the first time in my life that I’ve done something 100 percent not self-serving,” Toole said. “I have nothing at all to gain except a form of self-satisfaction. In my earlier years, I was not completely pure so I thought this was a way to even up the balance sheet.”

Drake, a licensed clinical social worker, completes the initial evaluation of each client. People with severe mental health problems, such as suicidal thoughts, are beyond the help of a volunteer and referred to a professional.

“In general, most of our clients are dealing with the challenges of aging and life,” Drake said.

One client felt like a burden living with relatives. Other people in their 80s are contemplating divorce. Some seniors have lost a child or grandchild and need someone, not related, with whom to talk about their sadness.

One issue they hear a lot about is the emotional and practical adjustment a client undergoes when losing a driver’s license. Volunteers empower these clients to explore their options and they provide emotional support. Today’s older generation is not accustomed to seeking professional help, Drake said.

“For older folks, it’s not something that was done,” he said.

They feel more comfortable speaking with a peer. Volunteers go through an extensive 10-week program, training three hours per week to learn basic counseling skills. They sign an oath of confidentiality. Volunteers are prohibited from becoming friends or socializing with clients.

Gretchen Bell, 72, retired from teaching in 2002 and got involved with peer counseling in 2006 after she saw an article in the newspaper about the program needing volunteers. She applied and went through the rigorous training process.

“It was a new career so to speak,” she said.

Like Toole, she has been surprised with how many complex issues seniors deal with, one of the major ones she’s encountered being financial concerns — with costly health issues, limited Social Security or children needing money.

“I think in working with children my whole life, my work was important and I was making a difference in the world,” Bell said. “So, working with seniors in this role, I feel like I’m again contributing.”