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Senior Peer Counselors help the forgotten elderly

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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After a full life, retired broadcaster Dave Robinson was surprised to find himself alone in his apartment at the age of 68 contemplating suicide.

Now a Senior Peer Counselor, Robinson talks with other older people who have found that retirement and gray hair can make them feel invisible and useless.

"I was exactly where our clients are - when you're left alone and the world has forgotten you," said Robinson. He wanted to ask: "Can somebody look me in the eye and say they see me?"

One of the oldest and largest programs in the United States, Senior Peer Counseling pairs trained volunteers to visit people 60 and older who need a little help to keep living independently in their own homes.

The nonprofit agency, part of the Mental Health Association in the Sacramento area, operates on a shoestring budget with one full-time and two part-time employees. Senior Peer Counselor pairs 79 volunteer peer counselors with about 150 seniors who may suffer from a problem seldom listed as a diagnosable condition - loneliness.

Because the stigma of "mental health" may deter older people from participating, the group's cards and fliers refer to the program only as "Friendly Faces."

Who knows better than other seniors the isolation that can come when former co-workers have long forgotten them, when the children are grown up and a spouse has died, said Donna Reynolds, program administrator. The peer counselor may be the only knock on the door in a week, said Reynolds.

"I like to think of it as a neighbor coming over for a cup of coffee," said counselor Claudia Novotny.

But, it's often much more.

Reynolds said volunteers have called for help when clients have fallen and been found on the floor. They are trained to recognize when family or neighbors are stealing. And, they sometimes bring food when the cupboards are bare.

Mental Health Association executive director Susan Gallagher said the counselors are a "volunteer safety net" when few mental health services are available to seniors.

Private health plans and Medicare, the federal health insurance for people 65 and older and the disabled, place severe restrictions on mental health services.

The recently released Profile of Older Adults in Sacramento County quoted from a 2001 survey that found 14 percent of seniors said they have a mental disability.

Senior Peer helps fight conditions - including isolation - that can lead to depression and drastic actions such as suicide attempts.

The profile by the Sacramento County Adult and Aging Commission showed that suicides and suicide attempts among the county's 65-and-older population are increasing.

Senior Peer volunteer Charles Webster got an emergency call one day that a client with cancer was checking himself out of the hospital with no help at home and no way to shop for groceries.

"We step in when everybody else walks away," said Webster.

Webster has a client over 90 who is too frail for visits, so he calls on the phone just to check on her. They often talk about Cuddles, her dog.

Another client is afraid to open her door to visitors, so the counselor brings a stool and talks to her through the screen door.

Novotny has a client who likes to go to Wal-Mart, where they both get on the store's motorized scooters to do their shopping side by side.

One elderly man wanted her to take him to visit the old card room where he used to work. Friends remembered him and bought him a beer. Then they went for pizza.

"I know that day was a highlight in his life," Novotny said of the client, who died within a month.

Adult children often do not realize their parents might be having trouble with the daily chores of living, said Reynolds. Their neighbors have died or moved away. And, she said, older people might be reluctant to ask for help.

The counselors are free to seniors. Webster, who pays for his own gas and uses church donations to buy incidentals for his clients, said that's hard for many to accept.

"I have been asked by my ladies, 'What do I owe you?' " he said. "Can you smile? Bill paid."

For information on the program, call (916) 855-5444.

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