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Retirees Find New Calling in Counseling

April 03, 1986|FRANK CLANCY | Clancy is a Venice free-lance writer. and

After 35 years as part-owner and vice president of Arrow Metals Co. in North Hollywood, 58-year-old Gil Somerfield will retire soon. He found himself approaching retirement with the same fears and doubts as other men his age.

"For three to five years I had been wondering what to do with the rest of my life," the soft-spoken Burbank resident said. "I knew I didn't want to work all my life. I wanted to retire, and retire into something meaningful. I had developed a spiritual desire to give of myself, to give to others."

So, as often as three times a week between October, 1983, and June, 1985, Somerfield spent mornings at the University of Judaism atop Mulholland Drive, where he attended lectures, classes, discussion groups and counseling sessions in the "Wagner Human Services Para-Professional Training" program.

Leads Peer Support Group

Having completed the program, Somerfield now leads a peer support group for 13 men between ages 44 and 69. When he retires he plans to do individual counseling and continue to lead peer support groups, all as a volunteer.

Somerfield is one of three Valley men who, after going through the Wagner training program, are translating their business skills into counseling skills. All agree that their business experience--working with people--prepared them for these second lives as counselors, but they stress the newness, the strangeness and the difficulty of their adopted work.

"Business," Somerfield said, "is much easier."

One of Somerfield's classmates, Van Nuys resident Kal Loeb, retired in 1983 after 40 years in the restaurant business. Loeb, 63, volunteers at the Bernard Multipurpose Center in Van Nuys, where he counsels individual clients and leads two peer support groups for senior citizens whose spouses have died.

"Loneliness is the progenitor of suicide," he said. "The suicide rate of seniors who have lost a loved one is very high, second only to that of teen-agers. They feel a sense of loss, a sense of being unneeded in the world. Helping them live, develop a sense of purpose, is very important."

At the Wagner Program, Loeb and Somerfield were among a tiny minority: Only three of about 50 participants were men. One of their predecessors--and, for Somerfield, an acknowledged inspiration--was Barney Meskin, 63, who graduated with the first Wagner class in June, 1983.

A 38-year resident of Burbank, Meskin has partly retired and is transferring control of two businesses, including the House of Billiards in Sherman Oaks, to his son. Like Somerfield, he leads a peer support group for men at the University of Judaism and another for Children of Aging Parents at a nearby temple.

Meskin suggested several reasons why so few men attend something like the Wagner program: "Men are sort of trapped into working. It's very hard for a man with a 9-to-5 job or a business to give up that routine and still feel useful. . . .

"Also, men are not as open" to being counselors, he said. "You have to expose yourself, expose your frailties, your vulnerabilities, your softness. The man is strong. He can't show his emotions, especially if those emotions would show him to be 'weak'--if, for example, they involve crying."

That softness does not come easily to an American man of Meskin's generation.

"I was really a tyrant when I first got married," he remembered. "For 10 or 12 years I raised my family with an iron fist. But I really wasn't happy.

"That all changed when my wife went into therapy. When she started to react differently, when I couldn't control her any longer, I too had to change. The balance of power could not remain the same. I had to change to save the marriage."

Painful Transformation

That transformation, Meskin remembers, was painful, but it led him to the Wagner program--and to his men's group.

"Of course, the tyrant in you never really goes away," he said. "You have to live with it. It remains with you forever."

Founded by Betty Wagner Kramer, the Wagner Human Services Para-Professional Training program was inspired by and named for her late husband, Rabbi Joseph Wagner, for 16 years the leader of Temple Beth El in Hollywood. Classes started in fall of 1981.

Upon completion of the program, graduates receive a Human Services Certificate and 24 units of continuing education credit at the University of Judaism. As paraprofessionals, graduates work under the supervision of professionals.

"They're not therapists, they're counselors," said Kramer. "There's a big difference. A therapist has years of training and experience. A counselor has good listening skills. They learn techniques of communications and active listening. They know their own limitations."

Although the Wagner program is affiliated with the University of Judaism and includes instruction in the Jewish faith, a person need not be Jewish to enroll. Wagner graduates have volunteered at an array of public and private agencies, including rape crisis centers, hospices, senior citizen centers and synagogues.

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