The Saving Grace of a Friendly Face

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2008 13:12

Louis Bayers and Shirley Wilder share a laugh

Tuolumne County native Louis Bayers, 75, is the youngest of 14 children. He attended Poverty Hill School in Stent, graduated from Sonora High in 1951, and served in Korea with the Army’s 49th Infantry Heavy Artillery Division.

He rode rodeo for four years with his brother and best friend, Howard “Peanut” Bayers, and Louis recalls the day when a fast-moving bull jumped on his back. Things are hazy from the point he hit the ground, but Louis knows one thing for sure: His brother, working as a rodeo clown, saved his life that day.

Since Howard died earlier this year, the days are long and lonely for Louis in Tuolumne General’s long-term care unit, where he copes with the ravages of diabetes. The disease has already claimed both of his legs, and he gets five injections a day in the hopes of warding off more damage.

So it sure brightens his world when Shirley Wilder stops by on her rounds as a “senior peer counselor” with the Tuolumne County Behavioral Health Department.

“It’s very rewarding for me, too,” says Wilder, 81, a widow and longtime Sonora resident whose five-year volunteer job has grown into a full-time labor of love. “It’s so great to go to somebody’s door and have them just light up when they see you standing there.”

Her job has little to do with counseling, and much to do with caring and empathetic listening. Although volunteers are trained to spot signs of alcohol, drug or physical abuse, their main job is to provide companionship and other support – helping seniors fill out complex forms or paperwork, for example.

Linda Happel oversees the Senior Peer Counseling program, which has been active since the early 1990s. Supported by state drug abuse prevention funds, it serves about 90 clients countywide and has a waiting list. Most clients are referred by family members, adult protective services, care homes or doctors. The program has about two dozen volunteers but could use many more, Happel says, particularly in the Groveland area, where there are only two peer volunteers.

“A great many seniors feel that no one needs them, particularly former professional people,” says Happel. “Their job was their persona, and when they retire they don’t have that feeling of worth anymore. Listening to their stories helps validate their worth, and often they will find strengths and coping skills they forgot they possessed.”

Elders experience many kinds of loss: loss of spouse, child, friends, mobility, even the family home as seniors move into care facilities. Helping ease the loneliness that can follow such profound life changes is the peer volunteers’ mission.

“Our purpose is to listen to people and to help in any way we can,” says Happel, who has bachelor’s degrees in medical management. “In many cases their family is tired of listening to the same stories or complaints.  In some cases the families are the problem. So many times families, for their own reasons, do not visit the senior, and if they do, they’re often critical.  I think that’s a very sad reality.”

Peer counselors can help seniors to find a new path forward.

“Sometimes just being a good friend can help them find their strength to push through, to find a new purpose in life,” Happel says. “It can make a tremendous difference.”

Senior Peer Counseling

Purpose: Helping people 55 or older cope with the stress, depression and grief that can follow the loss of a loved one, or one’s health or mobility; matches seniors with volunteers who caring, capable of confidentiality, and able to listen without judgment; volunteers are especially needed in the Groveland area.

Requirements: Volunteers should be 55 or older; make a minimum commitment of one hour every other week; provide own transportation; attend counselor’s meetings and in-service trainings.  Mileage is reimbursed.

Training: Four hours weekly over five weeks; includes listening skills, drug and alcohol abuse signs and prevention, age-related conditions and changes.

Contact: Linda Happel, 533-5400

Calaveras County also offers peer counseling to seniors. Contact Brock Kolby (754-6537 ) or Laurie Sundholm (754-2814).

© 2008, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2008 13:12
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