A Closer Look at Senior Peer Counseling for National Older Adult Month

A Closer Look at Senior Peer Counseling

An Interview with Clinical Supervisor of Senior Peer Counseling, Barri Dymot

May is National Older Adult month, and as we reflect on our psychological and emotional experiences in the era of COVID-19, we want to acknowledge and be thoughtful to how many older adults live alone and isolated most days out of the year. During a time when isolation and loneliness is being felt harder and more collectively than ever, we want to share the incredible and meaningful work our Senior Peer Counselors do and just how important their work is in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with one of the Clinical Supervisors of our Senior Peer Counseling, Barri Dymot, who celebrated ten years working with the program earlier this year. Barri’s passion from the program shines through in her dedication to both the clients and the volunteers, and she proclaims this program has changed her life for the better.

What is your background in older adult services and how did you end up working with Senior Peer Counseling?

I moved to San Luis Obispo from San Diego after twenty years of experience in mental health and social services. When I moved to here, both my parents and my husband had already passed, and I set out to start a new life on ten acres and I’m still living in true paradise in every respect. After I finished building my house within a year’s time, I started working again as a manager in older adult services and did so for about five years. Department of Social Services had hired me as a Social Work Supervisor, and I became connected to the social services, systems, providers, and community-based organizations throughout the county. But I missed public service.

When I turned 62, about 6 years later, Carol Schmidt, who was working with Wilshire at the time, asked me to do some work regarding scope of services for the program. I was always fond of Senior Peer Counseling because I knew how impressed the social workers were about what the Senior Peer Counselors were able to accomplish with the clients. Carol told me that Wilshire’s programs were expanding through support from the county, and she asked me if I would consider taking over the supervision of the counselors that served the San Luis Obispo and South County clients. I said I’d love to because I was really missing connecting to clients personally.

Can you tell me more about the specifics of the Senior Peer Counselors Program? How does it work? Who is it for? Who are the volunteers?

Senior Peer Counseling targets adults 60+ who are isolated, and the counseling is really based on their individual needs. They are matched with a counselor who is also 60+ and are visited as often as needed. The volunteer counselors are made up of mostly retired mental health professionals, each with a high level of experience and education, who have chosen to do this meaningful work in the community with their spare time, even though it takes up quite a bit of their time. We usually have around twelve volunteer counselors at any time, and currently, two of the counselors are retired nurses, one is a retired neuropsychologist, and another is a retired union labor negotiator; they all have people backgrounds and are very comfortable working with older adults. They each visit somewhere between one to six clients at a time, whatever they’re willing to take on. Isolated individuals who are very vulnerable not easy to work with, with many services having been previously in and out of their homes in attempts to reduce their degree of vulnerability.

What our counselors are able to accomplish with these clients is extremely impressive. We wonder well how is it that they’re able to do this? It’s because that, although their relationship is professional, they are also a peer, so the counselors are someone the clients can relate to. As appreciative as they are for the younger adults who have tried to help them before, it’s different. I explain when I do my first visit with a client that you’re not going to have to explain to these counselors what it’s like getting older, losing your independence, and your sense of self, they understand that. Everything our clients discuss with the counselors is strictly confidential and, therefore, the degree in which the counselors are able to reach these clients emotionally is very significant. Some have been working with their clients for several years; it’s a long-term commitment we are making to these needy individuals. The beauty of this program is that it is mutually beneficial.

As a supervisor, I do the initial assessment with potential clients that includes a depression screening, an anxiety screening and a detailed survey. When I do the initial assessment, I tell them that there will be no surprise bill, that we rely solely on donations, community support, and the hard work the volunteers do week after week. Clients are always skeptical initially and are in disbelief for a while, often saying something like “you don’t get something for nothing.”

How else do you think SPC has evolved during this pandemic?

During this time, counselors are currently using either the phone, FaceTime, or Zoom to stay in contact with their clients, depending on each of their preferences. We’re doing what we need to do to stay connected and stay involved with the clients who need this. The counselors are missing their face-to-face time with their clients, but our clients have really been through a lot throughout their lives. They are resilient and are managing. The counselors say their lives during COVID-19 are dramatically changed and they’re realizing that this is the life their clients live all the time.

What do you wish more people in the community understand about older adults living in isolation?

Often times, I have a client say to me “I hope people in this community understand how meaningful this program is to people like me who they don’t see because I never go out.” When you drive around town and you see these mobile home parks, or old apartment buildings and you see the shades drawn, and you wonder “does anyone live there?” Well, someone does and more often than not they are a part of Senior Peer Counseling.

I strongly believe that what the counselors are able to achieve with their clients is due to the service being provided in their home. It’s very different when you’re sitting in your favorite chair in your home and you’re having a discussion with a counselor, the clients have a much greater level of comfort, security, and safety. They are not sitting in an office setting. It’s just so touching, the things that these older adults chose to share their “secrets” that they’ve held onto their whole life.

Most of the community knows of Wilshire Hospice, Wilshire Home Health, but Wilshire Community Services is often overlooked, but their services are just so important to these individuals. I wish the community knew more about it. People who work at Wilshire Community Services are there because they want to be there, and they feel what they’re doing is meaningful, you can just feel it in the air. Everyone feels good about the contributions they’re making.

We get so much support from Wilshire via the on-going in-service training available to the counselors because many times we are the only ones going into the homes of these individuals so it’s important for them to have the information they need to know when to take action. We run across emergent situations and we know to response and deal with those needs whatever they may be. If we sense their needs are beyond our scope, especially their emotional needs, we are quick to involve other psychologist or a psychiatrist, to ensure that their needs are met. Their needs come first; our needs are second to that.

For people who are feeling that isolation right now, whether they are an older adult or not, what would you want to say to those people who are experiencing a new sense of self during this time in isolation?

We do fortunately all have telephones, so my advice to them is to start to reach out- it’s a good time to reach out. It’s also a good time to start mending fences. A time for reflection that many of us don’t often have because we are so consumed with our day-to-day existence. Try using this time in a helpful meaningful way by phone, or writing cards to people, give to others what you’re wanting. If you feel isolated it’s because you’re not reaching out enough. Just reach out, take the first step, be the one to step forward first.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I’m very appreciate to have the opportunity to do something that gives back to the community, and so are the counselors. We feel privileged to be doing this work, it’s really a honor, we’re thankful for having something so meaningful to do. When you live a busy life and you make a visit to a client, they are so appreciative of what you’ve been able to give to them and it’s taken so little out of you to give it. My clients over the years have made me a better person. All those hours I spent working were so worthwhile and my work has been such a gift for me.

Thank goodness for Wilshire, truly. Who would provide a home for all these retired professionals, myself included, to give something back to the community? If it weren’t for Ira Alpert and Wilshire, this wouldn’t be here. We also appreciate every bit of support that our donors and community provide us with and without that support this service wouldn’t be here. Every time I see a client, I say you have Wilshire to thank for this, they’re the ones who made this happen, I’m just a cog in the wheel.

Thank you to Barri and to all the Senior Peer Counselors, Clinical Supervisors, and staff members who work so hard to make this program a reality. To find out more information about Wilshire Community Services, visit https://www.wilshirecommunityservices.org/ or call us at 805-547-7025.