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Be someone seniors can talk to

Volunteer peer counseling training starts at Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center

Posted: March 19, 2009 12:22 a.m.
Updated: March 19, 2009 4:30 a.m.
Often throughout life we need the willing ear of a caring human being.

When we're children, our listening companions are usually concerned parents and grandparents.

As we age, our heartfelt tete-a-tetes are generally shared with spouses, close friends and adult children.

For many seniors, though - particularly those who live alone and suffer from loneliness or depression - the presence of someone to talk to is not readily available.

If you have a soft spot in your heart for seniors and some time to donate to their well-being, the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center has a rewarding opportunity for you.

Professional training of volunteer peer counselors for the elderly will soon begin at the Senior Center.

That training - facilitated by local psychotherapist Judith Harris - will focus on the emotional, social and physical needs of older people.

Interviewing techniques, reflective listening, assertiveness and information on community resources will be included in the training.

The experience will also offer a meaningful opportunity for volunteers to learn more about themselves and then apply that information to their own relationships with seniors.

Harris encourages community members to become peer counselors, noting the only special background required is empathy and eagerness to positively impact someone else's life.

"Listening to stories, giving support, encouraging expression of emotions, identifying strengths and instilling hope are some of the goals of peer counseling," Harris said, noting that we are all peer counselors.

"Any time we listen to a friend, spouse or relative we are in a helping relationship," she said, adding that peer counselors are helpers, not problem solvers.

Also a veteran medical social worker, instructor and humorist, Harris is known for infusing pragmatism and laughter into life's most painful situations.

A familiar face at the Senior Center, she leads several of its therapeutic support groups, including emotionally surviving life's setbacks, grief support and caring for aging relatives.

Peer counselors in action
Peer counselors, who do not necessarily have to be seniors themselves, make friendly visits and/or reassurance telephone calls to the homebound elderly.

Many of the seniors called upon feel lonely, isolated and depressed. Volunteers may also co-facilitate Senior Center "Live, Love & Laugh" discussion groups which offer counseling, socialization, support and encouragement to persons recently widowed. Such assistance also helps foster coping skills when faced with serious illness, memory loss and life's many other difficult transitions.

Topics discussed by Harris at the peer counselor training include learning how people grow, the myths of aging, understanding loss and the importance of making loss matter, communicating with compassion, and stress management (or "creative worrying" as Harris likes to call it).

Harris emphasizes that peer counselor training has a two-way reward.

"I have received letters from previous participants about how much the course helped them," she said. "That's why I strongly believe that this course is so helpful for everyone who wants to better understand themselves and their own beliefs. When you are working on yourself, you are helping others, and when you're helping others, you are working on yourself."

Registration for the volunteer peer counseling training is now open.

The Saturday training dates include March 21, March 28 and April 4. All classes meet from 9 a.m. to noon at the Senior Center, located at 22900 Market Street in Newhall.

Registration is $10, however, the fee will be waived for those willing to commit to volunteering one day per week for at least three months. Upon completion of the class, participants will receive a certificate.

For further information about the volunteer peer counselor training contact SuzAnn Nelsen at (661) 255-1588.


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