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Shades of Gray

A Friendly Ear : Counseling Center Trains Seniors to Listen to Senior Problems

December 26, 1991| Agnes Herman | Agnes Herman is a writer, lecturer and retired social worker living in Lake San Marcos

New Year's Day is less than a week away. Waiting on the bulletin board attached to the refrigerator door is a pristine calendar for 1992. Gradually, scribblings will fill the blank spaces: a trip to the dentist, a special birthday call, baby-sitting with a grandchild, lunch with a colleague, an exciting project to begin, a deadline to beat.

Unwritten will be the many resolutions we whisper in our hearts or speak aloud--reflecting our desires for a more fulfilling life, closer friendships or personal change.

I asked a neighbor about her resolutions for 1992. She is a widow, a great-grandmother, an active, healthy individual who has no idea what a rocking chair is for. She did not take long to answer: "I would like to be more physically active . . . I feel so good when I am!" She plans to get into a weightlifting program, something she has always wanted to do. She feels it will enable her to maintain good health and an enthusiastic spirit.

Another friend, a professor at San Diego State University, explained that at age 60, he is beginning to feel the press of the years and is resolved that in 1992 he will use his time better. He wants to spend his free hours with people he enjoys and loves. He needs to find opportunities to derive pleasure in living, rather than anxiety in the constant stress of the job. He does not feel he has effectively used his time. With the limits his years suggest, he wants to concentrate on people and things he enjoys.

It is hard to know if my friends will fulfill their resolutions; I know how difficult it is for me to fulfill my own. Yet many of us continue to make resolutions, year after year. I believe that we bother to promise ourselves these special projects, new attitudes, reformed behavior because we are reminded as each year passes that our time is limited.

But not even a New Year's resolution can eliminate the pressured feelings or the emptiness of lonely, unfulfilled hours that many of us experience. "Oh, if only I had someone to talk to--someone who understands!" How frequently that idea explodes in our minds as we face each new day.

Listening is the plaster cast for a broken heart; understanding is an aspirin for the headache that comes with parenting adult children; acceptance is CPR for the smothering fears and worries of living today.

Social workers, psychologists and a variety of other professionals practice these skills, helping people cope with their lives. But many of us, in this second half of life, do not feel the need for therapy, for professional counseling, but, oh, we do yearn for an attentive friend.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have such a person to turn to. But others of us have found it difficult to nurture a friendship; or have lost our closest friends to changing circumstances or death.

Ray Schwartz is program manager of the Seniors Counseling and Training Program of the county health department's Mental Health Services. He agrees that it is not always therapy that is required, but someone who will listen and not tell us what to do. Frequently, we of the "shades of gray" generation are frightened and overwhelmed by the stresses of declining health, dwindling dollars and devastating loneliness.

A compassionate and experienced fellow senior is sometimes the best person to help.

Schwartz and Bob Torres Stanovik, both licensed clinical social workers, are involved in a volunteer senior peer counseling program throughout San Diego County. Two groups are operating in North County, one in Escondido and the other in Oceanside.

Their staffs are composed of seniors who are trained as volunteer counselors for other seniors. Sometimes the term peer counselor is used, but Schwartz prefers to call the program "senior-to-senior." A peer is one of us, someone who faces many of the problems we do, who has a perspective much like ours, who knows and understands what happens when the kids grow up and either move too far away or remain and stay too close.

Senior-to-senior counselors are teachers, executives, professors, social workers, nurses and retired people, eager to reach out and embrace a new friend to whom they can be supportive. Their 12-week training program includes a brush-up on basic human relations and communication skills, including attitudes of acceptance and non-judgmental responses. It provides information about community resources. It responds to the variety of concerns of our generation.

Counselors meet their clients weekly at a mutually comfortable location--at home, in the office or in a park. The counselors also meet with their professional supervisors as they seek added information about problems brought to them. Frequently, the counselor becomes an advocate, a resource finder for the client.

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