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For Seniors : L.A. Shanti Work Brings Volunteer an 'Inner Peace'

August 28, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN

Joan Howard's life was getting smaller and smaller. Her fears were taking over, leaving her feeling empty.

But that was close to four years ago. Today, the woman who greets you at the door of her West Los Angeles home wears a T-shirt that says "Still Perfect After 60 Years." She credits her work with Los Angeles Shanti--an organization that provides emotional support to people who are affected by AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses--for turning her life into one of accomplishment again.

Howard, a retired nurse, was taking care of her husband, a diabetic, and her father, a stroke victim--both of whom died in 1986.

"I was totally overwhelmed," she said. "You muddle through and I didn't do it very well. I was bitchy, cranky, difficult and depressed and the only end was for the two of them to die and that's just so awful to think like that."

The problem, she says, was that she was alone. Her children were too young to lean on and needed support of their own. She was, in her words, "burned out."

So after the deaths, she did nothing. She rarely left her neighborhood. She was afraid to drive at night. This college-educated woman had essentially become a recluse. Then one evening she was watching television and saw an ad asking for volunteers for Los Angeles Shanti.

"I drove to the first interview at night in the pouring rain and I was terrified. I had never been east of La Cienega. But once I got there and met these wonderful people, I remember leaving thinking, 'Please don't turn me down, I want to do this so bad,' " she said.

Howard admits she was naive because she expected to meet a lot of blue-haired, old lady-type volunteers. Instead, the majority were gay men. She had had no connection to the gay community. What she did have, though, was the conviction that no one should be alone when they are struggling with either their own illness or that of a loved one. She understood the struggle and eventually saw the similarities between the symptoms of AIDS and what her husband went through--first losing his sight, then the use of his limbs. And her father's incapacitation from a stroke and subsequent dementia.

L.A. Shanti--the word shanti means "inner peace" in Sanskrit--has spent 11 years caring for people with AIDS. Originally, the group provided individual counseling. Then support groups were formed to help those with HIV and full-blown AIDS. More than 50,000 people have used Shanti's services, which are free. The organization holds weekend seminars for people who have recently tested HIV-positive. And they operate 31 support groups for people living with AIDS as well as groups to help the bereaved, women with HIV, people who have suffered multiple loss and "significant others."

Howard and co-facilitator Chuck Russ lead a group for significant others--people who have a loved one with HIV or AIDS. "It's a safe place where people truly understand what you're going through and how devastating it is for patients and for those who love them," Howard said. "We have parents, close friends, lovers--anyone who has someone close to them with HIV."

Unfortunately, Howard said, most people wait too long to join the group. By the time they do, she said, their loved one is so sick they are overwhelmed. Still, the group approach helps. "I have seen people come in who were suicidal and leave with their lives back. So, at least for a couple of hours, the burden is lifted and shared," she said.

Howard said that when she first started, the groups were made up entirely of gay men. But now she sees more women, and Shanti has started a group for women with HIV.

She also remembers how she remained quiet for several sessions. "I was a nervous wreck the first few weeks but a young woman joined the group. Her husband had AIDS and I identified with her more. . . . I don't feel (nervous) now. There's nothing harder in the world than watching a loved one die and if you've played some part in making this experience less painful for someone, nothing compares with it," she said.

Los Angeles Shanti is at 1616 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. Information: (213) 962-8197.

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