Senior peer counselors also benefit from the volunteer work

By: Stephanie Dumm News Messenger Reporter
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For senior peer counselors Dave Hathaway and Ruth Poehlmann, the work they do is beneficial to them and those they counsel. Hathaway and Poehlmann, who are both Lincoln residents, are volunteers with the Placer County’s Senior Peer Counseling Program. The program provides free in-home counseling for Placer County seniors 55 and older who are experiencing depression, grief, anxiety, family conflict, physical disability, substance abuse or loneliness, said senior peer counseling coordinator Tom Drake. The counselors are also 55 years and older, Drake said. The program has been a part of Placer County since 1992 and, Drake said, “we are always trying to get the word out” that the program is available. Those needing counseling are referred to the program by a number of sources. “People that refer them to us are hospitals, family members and clients themselves,” Drake said. “We get referrals from other county agencies like Adult Protective Services and another one called Home Supportive Services. It’s from a variety of sources.” Counselors apply and interview to participate in the program, and also go through training “which is an opportunity for me to see if they are a good fit,” Drake said. “They receive 30 hours of training where they learn counseling intervention strategies, learn about confidentiality requirements and community resources,” Drake said. “Once they finish training, they attend weekly group supervision, where we all come together and discuss the clients they have.” Drake said senior peer counselors don’t have to be professional counselors. “We are looking for people who can be compassionate and non-judgmental and work with people from all walks of life,” Drake said. “They have to have the heart and that they want to be of service to seniors and make a difference.” The average counselor stays with the program for seven to eight years, Drake said, and don’t provide therapy. “They learn some basic counseling skills in the training and in ongoing supervision,” Drake said. “The biggest thing they do is listen and provide emotional support.” Drake said the counselors receive a benefit from what they do. “They will tell you they probably get more than they give,” Drake said. “They feel they are doing something that really makes a difference.” Poehlmann and Hathaway are two of the five counselors from Lincoln, Drake said. Hathaway sees four clients weekly in their homes for an hour to an hour-and-a-half each. “I had an interest in helping seniors, primarily, and a lot of empathy for the situations they find themselves in,” Hathaway said. “I have a lot of patience and listening skills.” Hathaway describes his experience as a counselor as “very rewarding,” even though there are some challenges. “The most challenging is having clients with severe medical problems and having to watch them deteriorate,” Hathaway said. “You have to compartmentalize. Once you leave clients, you have to go onto your own life, although you can’t help thinking about it.” Hathaway said counseling has been “time well-spent.” “It’s really helping some people over the hump with their problems, helping them see a bright side off of the other end,” Hathaway said. The year before Poehlmann became a senior peer counselor, her husband died. “I had been a caregiver for him for a long time, 24/7, and so I had a lot of experience in that sense, with both the loss and also the care-giving,” Poehlmann said. “I felt kind of compelled because I thought there was something I could give back.” Poehlmann learned “it’s important to go in with an open mind” when counseling a new client for the first time. It’s challenging to counsel those who have been referred to the program by outside agencies or their families, she said. “Usually, the self-referred ones, they are the best clients because they know what they want,” Poehlmann said. “The challenge is getting them to open up and also that they are willing to work on their problems.” Poehlmann said she is not there to “fix their problems.” “I may hold their hand or show them ways and point out resources available through the county,” Poehlmann said. “Ultimately, it is the client that has to be willing to fix the problem, if it can be fixed.” The most rewarding part of counseling, Poehlmann said, “is when I get a breakthrough.” “However long it may take, when they finally say, ‘I am comfortable with my sessions. I can accept myself for what it am,’” Poehlmann said. Being a senior peer counselor has given her a “reality check,” Poehlmann said, keeps her “humble” and has taught her to “count my blessings.” “It opens up a whole dimension of life, which things I might not have ever been through or experienced, and seeing how other people have struggled,” Poehlmann said. “By seeing how other people dealt with life and how other people really had tough, sometimes devastating lives and what they have made out of them is really empowering. Whatever I give to them, I equally get something back and learn something.” Did you know? If you are 55 or older and would like to receive senior peer counselor or be a counselor, contact Tom Drake at (530) 886-3413 or