Senior peer counselors reach clients through understanding, shared experience

Published on July 25, 2017

Haifa Khoury was in a dark place when she made the phone call that would eventually connect her with Judi Cassidy.

Khoury’s husband was in the later stages of Alzheimer's, and she felt overwhelmed and paralyzed, unable to cope.

“At that time I was very confused about so many things. I was in a mess, not knowing where to start,” she said. “I had the courage to call.”

On the other end of the line was the coordinator for Placer County’s senior peer counseling program, a free and confidential service for all county residents 55 and above.

Shortly thereafter, Khoury met Cassidy — who at 78, has now been a senior peer counselor for more than a decade.

Senior peer counselors are trained volunteers who assist peers with age-related adjustment issues such as grief, a change in their sense of independence, family conflict, situational depression and loneliness. Counselors work with clients for as long as necessary, typically at least six weeks, and help clients set incremental goals and connect with community resources. The program is somewhat different from formal therapy in that the peer counselors share their own experiences and try to relate with clients.

“We have so many of the same kinds of things. The same kinds of illnesses, the same difficulties with aging. It builds a stronger bond than when you’re in a more clinical setting,” Cassidy said.

Delta Ricky, an experienced peer counselor, said she draws on past experience as a single mother, widow and grandparent when working with her clients. Brian Zobel spent time in the military and now enjoys working with veterans. 

“I can understand a little bit of what they went through,” he said. “I like helping people.”

As rewarding as the experience is for clients, it’s just as beneficial to the counselors. 

“Helping someone one-on-one, as opposed to just writing a check (to a charity), is amazing,” said counselor Dave Hathaway. “It takes me out of myself, whatever I’m dealing with, and into someone else’s life — and hopefully to their betterment.”

One of his clients, Jack, is 93. The two met after Jack lost his wife and sunk into depression. 

“He saved my life,” Jack said of Hathaway. “He reminds me of what I am and who I am. I’ve been through some things. I think it’s a great program. Anyone who is not taking advantage of it is making a mistake.”

Sometimes, older generations can be resistant to seeking help, counselors said. 

“People will say ‘I’m fine,’ when generally, they are not. Usually there is something in the background that you need to deal with. We’re not always fine, and it’s okay to ask for help,” Zobel said. 

Just having someone there to listen can make all the difference. 

“When we have somebody listening, part of our struggle goes away,” Khoury said. With Cassidy’s help, she was able to prepare for the loss of her husband. Now that he has passed away, Cassidy is helping her work through the grief. 

Anyone interested in peer counseling services can call 916-787-8859 to speak with the program coordinator, who will assess whether or not the program will be a good fit. 

There is also a critical and growing need for volunteers aged 55 and above to serve as counselors. 

Placer County’s senior population is surging, and quickly. A quarter of county residents are 55 and above, and every day 240 people turn 65. By 2040, the county is projected to have more than 151,000 people over the age of 60 — more than triple the amount in 2000. 

“Volunteers are the backbone of our program,” said coordinator Teresa Koch. Volunteer counselors have come from all walks of life: former teachers, doctors, truck drivers, financial advisors and beyond. 

There are currently two groups of counselors, one that meets in Auburn and the other in Rocklin. Counselors attend an initial training session, followed by weekly check-in meetings where they seek advice for client issues, receive resource materials and are paired with new clients. 

“I learn something new from every client I have,” said Ricky. “I am so richly blessed to have the privilege to be a counselor.”

Interested volunteers can also call 916-787-8859 for more information.