Local seniors benefit from Peer Support
Counseling Program Gives Central County's Older Citizens an Outlet
Posted on Thu, Aug. 24, 2006
Source: Contra Costa Times
By Kellie Applen, Staff Writer
When Ginny Mellen's mother died, she began seriously thinking about aging and the issues that come with it. Mellen, who was in her late 50s, searched for the meaning of this new stage of life and looked for ways to do something meaningful for others with the same concerns.
She found both in Senior Peer Counseling, a county program that trains those 55 and older to provide emotional support to other seniors. The senior peer counselors are volunteers and their services are free. Mellen, now 61, became a counselor three years ago.
Peer counselors help other seniors work through problems, such as illnesses, family issues, loss and grief and visit their clients at their homes once a week.
Many of the counselors do not have a social services background, but all have a lot to offer other seniors, said Bonnie Baldwin, a licensed therapist with county health services who helps run the program.
"Many of these people have gone through similar difficulties; have had to move themselves, have had illnesses themselves," Baldwin said. "They have all their life experiences to offer."
The peer counselors are required to go through an extensive eight-week training course and are urged to commit to the program for a year, Baldwin said. Once their training is complete, they are assigned clients and continue meeting weekly with Baldwin and the program director.
Clients are referred to them by social workers, adult protective services, hospitals and through word of mouth.
The program has 35 counselors, ranging in age from 55 to 95, but it's in need of more. Baldwin hopes to double the number of volunteers in the next year or two. The only requirement to volunteer is age and the desire to make a difference in someone's life.
Many of the peer counselors stick with the program more than the required year and say they get as much out it as their clients do.
"It's really a gift when someone will share their heartfelt feelings with me," said Mellen, who lives in Pleasant Hill. "You learn how to be with people when they are in their deep emotions and to just be with it. You don't have to fix it. That helps you accept your own feelings as well."
Mellen began working with Bonnie Loos, a 64-year-old Martinez resident, about a year ago. Loos, who suffered from panic disorder and depression, struggled to find an available psychologist that was accepted by her insurance. She called John Muir Medical Center for help and was referred to the peer counseling program.
Loos said that Mellen's patient listening, advice, and her home visits were crucial to recovery. She said Mellen has a warmth and patience that Loos' previous therapist didn't and is far more accessible.
"I know if needed to, I could hug (Ginny), and that is so important when you're going through this hard time," Loos said. "I would never have hugged my other counselor and I never got the warmth I do with Ginny."
Kellie Applen covers Concord and Clayton. She can be reached at 925-682-6440, ext. 26 or email@example.com.
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