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It's all about listening

She simply sits, wearing a sign around her neck that says, "I listen."

She means it. Margarita Turkow, 80, listens to anyone at the Ashland Senior Center who wants to talk to her. She is trained not to respond — just to be attentive — and, by her presence, to help roll back the isolation of elders, especially those whose loved ones have died and for whom family is far away.

Like the other 15 listeners volunteering with The Listening Project, she is trained over three days to listen — to anyone — with respect, compassion and presence and not to give advice, recommend services or be a cheerleader.

Eating their low-cost lunch, seniors will gather round Turkow and openly talk about the everyday stuff of life. If they need to talk about more personal or emotional matters, they can go to a private room.

"It's good to have someone to talk to. When you're alone, you'll talk to just about anyone," says 92-year-old Henry Kneebone, whose wife died two years ago. "I get kind of lonesome — and I really like to listen to other people as they talk to the listener."

For Jim O'Donnell, 77, finding out about Trinity Episcopal Church, sponsor of Listening Post, made a big difference in the quality of his life.

"I went to midnight mass, with a beautiful choir of 75 people. The place was packed to the rafters. I've really become a solid member now."

The key to being a good listener, says Turkow, is that you have to start listening to yourself — letting yourself be fine with the place you are in, and not clutter things up with quick answers.

"It's one of the greatest lessons," says Turkow. "Everyone is where they need to be right now, even if there's no solution."

The lesson was driven home early when Turkow said she strongly felt she knew a good fix for the guest's problem but held her tongue.

"They came up with it, and it was the exact opposite of what I would have said, and it worked."

Listening may have therapeutic benefits but is not therapy, says one of The Listening Project's creators, former Southern Oregon University interim president Sara Hopkins-Powell.

"Families are spread out and people don't have someone to listen," says Hopkins-Powell. "The hardest thing is to resist being a problem solver, because it's much more powerful if they come to their own conclusions."

Recalling one "guest," who had stopped driving and felt isolated living a half-mile from town, Hopkins-Powell said she was sure she had the fix, but the person, in one session, made the decision to move into town.

Listening is a much-ignored skill, but there's lots to learn about it, she says — and lots of different listening styles.

"We teach that you can listen interestedly with your head, listen compassionately with your heart or listen with your presence by holding the person," she says. "The belly is the place for that."

The program was started three years ago by Hopkins-Powell, spiritual director Nancy Linton and social worker Martha Hutchison.

Hutchison worked in a similar project in Anchorage, Alaska, and brought it here.

It's open 11:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays, for elders at the Senior Center, 1699 Homes Ave.; 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays at Uncle Food's Diner, First United Methodist Church, 175 N. Main St.; and 10 a.m. to noon Mondays and 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays at the Ashland public library.

The program provides 400 hours of listening a year. Backers are exploring the idea of opening a Listening Post at a church in Phoenix.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Correction: The spelling of Margarita Turkow's name has been updated throughout this article.

Margarita Turkow, 80, a volunteer listener, chats with Henry Kneebone, 92, at Ashland's Senior Center. - Jamie Lusch