Peer counselors relish helping fellow seniors cope

When asked what had drawn her to be a senior peer counselor, Stelle Stanhill of Grover Beach said that her friends had always come to her with their problems; then she saw an ad on TV about the program.

Marj Huggins of Arroyo Grande had been taking care of her mother for several years and was looking for answers when she saw an article about the program and then took the training.

Judy Guarnera of Grover Beach was retiring and wanted to develop new skills.

Senior Peer Counseling is a program where trained volunteer counselors help elders aged 60 and older with a variety of concerns.

These can include wanting help with family relationships, dealing with loss of independence, feelings of isolation or fear, and many others.

Each senior peer counselor goes through training regarding the needs of seniors, then attends a weekly supervision session for support.

The counselors expressed immense satisfaction from participating in the program and have volunteered from 2 to 8 years.

Jerry Moore of Arroyo Grande said he learns about himself and others, and enjoys the companionship of the other counselors.

Guarnera added that she loves to witness the “aha” moments of the seniors. She has learned not to take on the client’s pain, that she can’t “fix” them, but can help them tap into their own internal resources.

Huggins has learned about “boundaries” and not to get over-involved in a client’s problems.

Stanhill loves seeing seniors’ reactions when they suddenly understand how they can better cope with their situation.

Carol Schmidt of Pismo Beach, the program’s director, added that they can help their clients find peace and rediscover their inherent resilience. All of the counselors emphasized how much they benefit from their weekly supervision, where they give and receive support.

Chronic illness or a sudden illness can severely alter an elder’s lifestyle. Counselors can help clients accept new limitations. They may need help with loss of autonomy, such as no longer being able to drive, needing to use a cane or walker, or needing the help of a caregiver or housekeeper.

Family relations can become strained. Role reversal where a son or daughter might take over as manager may leave the senior feeling like a child. Or family members might be at a great distance. There can be “incredible shifts in family dynamics,” according to Schmidt.

Benefits for seniors include having “an unbiased eye looking in on the situation,” Huggins said; helping them to focus, according to Stanhill; having a compassionate listener trained in confidentiality, Moore said; and helping them to come “alive” again, Schmidt said.

The client gets a chance to tell the stories of their lives to an attentive listener.

A new free training for senior peer counselors begins in March. The program is recruiting for counselors all over San Luis Obispo County.

Volunteers must be 55 and older. For information about volunteering or referring a senior for counseling, contact Schmidt at 547-7025, ext. 15, or send an e-mail to seniorpeer@wilshirehcs.org.

The South County Beat appears every other week. Reach Gayle Cuddy at 489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com.