Mike Talks about Senior Peer Counseling

By Christopher Oak Reinier

Mike is a voluntary counselor in the Senior Peer Counseling Program associated with West County Community Services, and in a recent interview he explained that peer counselors are not professionally licensed therapists and they are not just friendly visitors dropping by to see how someone is doing. “We are peers with the desire and the training to assist an elderly person through any number of the issues that can be difficult for seniors in our society, such as: the loss of a partner, isolation, feelings of not belonging or having purpose anymore, fears that accompany the impaired functioning of growing old, that frustration that seems like it will never go away.” Counselors meet with clients for twelve weeks for one hour each week. And the success of the service, Mike believes, comes from the “peer to peer connection” which allows both the client and the counselor to use personal life experiences to address the client’s issues of aging and the shared challenges of growing old.

Peer counselors are trained, he said, “to help troubled seniors transition to a better place in their lives, not by making them dependent on the counselor, but by helping them become their own independent agents in the process.” The service has been very successful for its clients. And, according to Mike, it’s a two-way exchange. “There is a ‘use of self’ where one’s own personal essence is so involved in what one is doing it makes the work a gift to oneself as well as to the recipient of your work.” He thinks Peer Counseling is the best expression he’s experienced of that kind of work.

Mike, who is in his 70’s, graduated from the University of Memphis with a degree in psychology and did graduate work at Ohio State University. He spent most of his adult working life in Information Technology, becoming the Director of Software Quality and Process Improvement for the Bank of America. After he retired, he traveled with his wife for a few years to more than sixty countries, then decided he wanted to do something that could be more of service to others.

According to Melissa Fike, WCCS Director of Senior Adult Counseling, “New Peer Counselors participate in 35 hours of training focused on topics of key importance in working with seniors, including active listening and basic counseling skills, grief and bereavement, and family dynamics. The volunteers learn about what they might hear — the anxieties, grief, frustrations — and learn how to help the elderly manage their problems with positive attitudes toward aging and better emotional balance. Ongoing training and supervision are also provided to Senior Peer Counselors, and this support is a critical component of the program’s success.”

Mike expressed his respect and appreciation for the “caliber of the training, supervision, and care” given to the volunteers by Melissa and Vicki Wedegaertner, Senior Programs Manager. “The keystone of the program,” he said, “is the collective heart and mind of our community of counselors. In our twice monthly meetings we get support and perspective from other counselors, as well as from Melissa and Vicki, who nurture this community awareness. In these meetings we engage the power and wisdom and the vision of the counseling community, give and receive support for each of us individually to see our blind spots, and to see what others have done.”

His experience is one of the many that demonstrate the truth of the old saying, “Give and you shall receive”. And what Mike gives is a successful example of WCCS’s mission: to strengthen and empower individuals, families, and communities one person at a time.