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Peer Counseling Helps Seniors Past Depression and Loneliness


When her husband of 60 years suffered the first of three strokes, Viola Berton turned to a Glendale counseling program for senior citizens and "just let it all hang out."

It was an unusual move. The former elementary school principal long thought it best to keep her anxieties to herself, and others had said her depression and loneliness were merely natural effects of old age.

"My generation believed that you shouldn't let it all hang out," said Berton, 82, a former Eagle Rock resident. "And it seemed like other generations thought the problems we had came inevitably with time."

When her husband died in October, Berton was able to cope thanks to three years of counseling under the Senior Peer Counseling Service.

The service, offered since 1985 by the Verdugo Mental Health Center using $30,000 in Los Angeles County funds, was one of several mental health programs threatened under county budget cuts.

But a vigorous community campaign by peer counselors and program directors convinced Glendale Memorial Hospital and Health Center to adopt the service.

The hospital, which in the past allowed counselors and their clients to use its meeting rooms, now will provide about $30,000 worth of clerical and administrative help and will take over fund raising for the program, said Myrna Samuels, one of two directors of the service.

Each week, 14 elderly counselors serve 65 clients, who are concerned about such things as ending a career, moving into an apartment or retirement home, falling out of touch with a son or daughter or losing a spouse to illness or death. They meet individually once a week at the hospital, at the client's residence or in groups, Samuels said.

Occasionally, a counselor helps a client find a smaller apartment, locate other services for the elderly or work out a monthly budget, she said.

Although the service in the past was free, budget constraints have required that clients pay $10 for individual sessions or $5 for group meetings with some allowance for those unable to pay that much, Samuels said.

The program will need about $25,000 in donations next year to train peer counselors, she said.

The counselors each receive 75 hours of training before they meet with clients, Samuels said. The volunteers include former teachers, homemakers, architects, actors and military officers who work six to eight hours a week. All are at least 55 years old.

Fred Bernard, 73, a former textiles stylist, had been a volunteer for children's programs at a hospital for the disabled in New York City. In 1985, he moved to Los Angeles to work as an actor in commercials and volunteered to be a counselor, he said.

"Very often what our clients tell us kicks up some of our own weak spots," Bernard said. "One of the reasons we're very effective is because it is seniors talking to seniors. There's nothing they can say that I cannot match."

Samuels and program co-director Dona Clark said they will try to recruit another 15 to 20 volunteer counselors for a three-month training program in January.

When the service's funding was threatened, Samuels, Bernard and others feared that elderly Glendale residents would have no access to counseling, so they persuaded Glendale Memorial hospital to adopt the program, Wayne Jones, Verdugo's executive director, said.

"It's desperately needed," Jones said. "The whole emphasis in health care now is providing more in-home services, not in-hospital services, to seniors so they can continue to take care of themselves. The peer-counseling service allows that to happen."

Many elderly people do not receive counseling, Jones said. Some perceive it as an extreme practice reserved for the severely mentally disabled.

"Their problems are much like our own--having adult children they don't get along with, stressing about increasing frailties and disabilities, moving from a house to an apartment or a retirement home," Samuels said. "But this generation believes therapy is for the crazy, so they suffer in silence, and everyone says that's old age and dementia."

Berton, articulate and well-educated, said she was devastated in 1987 when her 87-year-old husband James suffered the first of three strokes. She considered professional therapy too threatening, so she contacted Samuels after learning of Glendale's program.

"I just sat back and said: 'This is the end. I'm an old woman, waiting for death,' " said Berton, who now lives in a Toluca Lake retirement home. "I always thought I was an independent person, but from 1920 to 1980, I was part of a team.

"When my husband became sick, I couldn't come back to the mainstream by myself," Berton said. "My counselor literally helped turn my life around."

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