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Senior citizens give free counseling to other seniors

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Ed Reed, left, Nan Gunderson and Stewart McCollom are peer counselors who serve senior citizen clients in Jackson County for the Age Wise Age Well program.
Trained volunteers come from all walks of life

Retired therapist Ed Reed was wondering what he could do to help during the pandemic when he spotted his neighbor Stewart McCollom, a retired business owner.

“I wanted something to do to use my skills and give to the community,” Reed recalled. “I ran into Stewart while he was walking his dog. He told me about the Age Wise Age Well program. I said, ‘Wow! That’s great!’”

The program in Jackson County trains senior citizens from all walks of life to become volunteer peer counselors for other seniors. Clients in the program get a free weekly counseling session to talk about a range of issues, from losing one’s sense of identity after retirement to navigating the loss of a spouse.

“It’s a very worthwhile thing for the community — both for us as volunteers and for people who need someone to listen to them and discuss problems,” Reed said.

The program is accepting new clients as well as new volunteers.

Reed retired from his career as a licensed therapist in 2019. Now a volunteer with the Age Wise Age Well program, he has a few clients of his own and also does the initial intake conversations with those referred to the program.

The program has a dozen counselors who each see one to four clients each. Normally, a counselor and client would meet one-on-one in person, usually at the client’s home. During the pandemic, the counseling sessions are being done by phone or through online video talks.

Reed said the volunteers, who come from a mix of backgrounds, do well as counselors.

“I’ve been very impressed with people’s skills. There’s a richness that comes from people coming from different professions. Everyone has a real desire to be a good listener and to be empathetic,” he said.

McCollom, now 93, helped launch peer counseling for senior citizens in Jackson County. He’s been helping as a counselor since 1990.

McCollom said it made sense to start peer counseling for seniors in the Rogue Valley since so many people retire here. The area also has a large number of retirement communities and nursing homes.

McCollom said relationship issues are the most common problems people are confronting, whether it’s relationships with a spouse, adult children or others in the community.

The next most common set of issues revolve around aging. Many people become anxious about their health and experience isolation, he said.

“We look at all of these kinds of aging issues,” McCollom said. “Sometimes people have anxiety. Sometimes there’s guilt over something they think they did wrong. There can be frustration, especially among men who had high-powered jobs and now they’re not doing anything and they feel they’re losing their identity.”

McCollom said some people have unresolved issues from the past and need help working through their feelings in order to move on.

Nan Gunderson, a volunteer counselor and retired clinical social worker, said with all the upheaval and change over the past few years, people need someone to talk to now more than ever.

“It’s critical to have someone to talk to and vent and problem solve,” she said.

Gunderson said clients are often facing some type of loss, such as the loss of a house, a spouse, some of their physical abilities or their career after they retire.

“Maybe they’ve retired or they had to quit because of a health condition, or they’ve been a caregiver but their loved one died or had to go into a facility. They are going through a transition that starts as a loss,” she said.

Gunderson said counselors listen carefully to people’s stories about their lives and current experiences.

While in-person meetings between clients and counselors are on pause for now, Gunderson said the counselors haven’t let that stop them from helping their clients via phone or computer.

“We look forward to the time when we can go back to meeting in person, but we don’t let that handicap us. It’s a good program and it’s still valuable,” she said.

The Age Wise Age Well program is under the umbrella of the Community Volunteer Network organization.

Referrals to the program have dropped off somewhat during the pandemic because people are visiting their doctors less often, said Community Volunteer Network Executive Director Kristin Milligan.

People can call and ask for counseling, or health care workers, relatives, friends and neighbors can refer someone who they think could benefit from the counseling service.

Milligan said senior citizens often feel more comfortable talking to fellow senior citizens who are going through the same shared experiences.

Because the service is free, it fills a gap in the community. Even people with insurance often run out of coverage for therapy sessions, said Age Wise Age Well Program Coordinator Brooke Kirkland.

During the intake process, people with severe mental health issues can be referred for professional help if their needs are beyond the scope of the program.

Kirkland said the volunteer counselors are the heart of the Age Wise Age Well program.

The counselors meet weekly for a confidential talk with each other about their clients’ issues. With their diverse mix of backgrounds and experiences, they help each other do a better job helping their clients, Kirkland said.

“The group of 12 active counselors is so dedicated and they care so deeply about the people they serve,” she said. “I can’t imagine a more compassionate group.”

Gunderson, one of the counselors, said the volunteers sincerely enjoy talking with their clients.

“It’s uplifting to all our peer counselors because we feel we’re providing something meaningful. I think it’s uplifting for our clients because they know we’ll be there every week. We’re dependable and trained and we care,” she said.

Gunderson said she knows it’s hard for people to ask for help and apply for counseling. But she said people feel better once they start talking regularly to someone they trust.

“Pick up that phone,” she urged.

To apply for counseling yourself or to refer someone for counseling, or to volunteer to become a trained peer counselor, call 541-646-3402.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.