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Saturday, February 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Elder Peer Counselors Help Senior Citizens Fight Battles

By Maisy Fernandez Correspondent

Your spouse passed away. You can’t drive anymore. You just moved out of the home where you raised your family and into an assisted living facility.

As people age, natural transitions of life feel like losses. And they are.

But, elders don’t have to face these struggles alone. Peers like Shirl Klassen help them cope with rough times. The 65-year-old counselor drives to several homes each week to meet with clients. Klassen and 13 other seniors volunteer for Senior Peer Counseling, a program of Spokane Mental Health’s Elder Services.

Counselors advise elders on a variety of issues including grief and loss.

Loss can mean many things, said Janet Simchuk, senior peer consultant at Elder Services. Common losses include medical benefits, health, family members or homes as they enter an assisted living facility.

“Losses really pile up as you get older,” she said.

So the counselors tackle related issues such as isolation, family communication and depression.

“Depression is a major referral into the program,” Simchuk said. So is isolation. “You really start to worry when seniors shut themselves in.”

The service has several advantages over traditional counseling. First, elders are counseled by their peers, who can better relate to their feelings. “Many seniors have been taught that counseling isn’t OK,” said Simchuk. “Some feel a peer is better than a younger mental health counselor.”

Because many seniors have problems getting around, counselors will travel to the client’s home. The service is offered at a low cost, from as little as $2 to no fee, depending on income levels.

Clients - referred to the program by family, friends or themselves - are screened by Simchuk and reminded that counseling is issue-focused and not just for visiting. Clients and counselors are matched by common interests, similar situations and location.

Volunteers attend 60 hours of training and receive para-professional counseling certificates. They are schooled on elder issues, depression and listening skills. Volunteers also learn about senior suicide and its warning signs. And because the program is operated out of Elder Services, volunteers are able to get help for their clients.

“If we see something we can’t handle, we can easily and quickly refer them out,” Simchuk said.

More volunteers are needed to help handle caseloads.

“We just need people who are listeners, who really care. Background doesn’t matter; we have volunteers from all different walks of life,” Simchuk said.

Volunteers must be 55 or older with schedules flexible enough to visit clients. They must attend a weekly supervision meeting and commit to the program for one year. Also, they must be able to drive or use public transportation to arrive at their appointments.

The next training session begins Sept. 16. Volunteering for the program “is tremendously rewarding,” said Klassen. “When you know that people are out there hurting and you can help them, the reward is incomparable.”

For more information or to sign up for the training, call Simchuk at 458-7450.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: Created in support of the Spokane County Health Improvement Partnership (HIP), Discoveries highlights people working to improve community health and well-being. If you have a discovery that deserves recognition, call 742-3660. Or visit their Web site at www.hipspokane.org.

Created in support of the Spokane County Health Improvement Partnership (HIP), Discoveries highlights people working to improve community health and well-being. If you have a discovery that deserves recognition, call 742-3660. Or visit their Web site at www.hipspokane.org.

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