Ellen Wiebrecht, who recently moved to Medford and is trying to cope with a variety of issues, talks with Age Wise, Age Well counselor Brent Poulton at her home. - Jamie Lusch

Peers help seniors with transitions

Recently widowed and retired from teaching history in Eugene, 71-year-old Ellen Wiebrecht moved to Medford to be near her grown daughters, who were having significant troubles in life.

It was a triple blow — the loss of her lifetime partner, kids off track and a strange, new town where she doesn't have friends. Wiebrecht needed someone to talk to, but couldn't afford counseling.

She found exactly what she needed in Brent Poulton, 77, a volunteer counselor with Age Wise, Age Well, a cadre of 15 trained "peer counselors" who are seniors themselves.

"We sit and talk. He listens and asks a few questions and stimulates my thinking," says Wiebrecht. "He doesn't tell me what to do. He helps me with the big adjustment of living alone, the grief, the stress of my childrens' lifestyles, the adjustment to a very different town."

Wiebrecht says she's joined some clubs but it's hard to meet people and she hasn't made any personal friends.

Her situation is typical of AWAW clients — people facing a series of huge life losses and not prepared with coping skills, says Poulton, the group's clinical supervisor.

"The common denominator is loss of abilities, loss of spouse, loss of confidence and loss of the things dear to you, if you have to move to an apartment," says Poulton.

"They are so thankful to be able to say how they really feel," says counselor Claire Wright, 82. "There are things they don't want to say to their children. They often fear their children would stop calling if they knew they had all these needs. They want someone they can be honest with, without judgments."

Counselors are trained to build on clients' strengths and to find what motivates them and bring it out, says counselor Nan Gunderson, 69, a clinical social worker with Medford Providence Medical Center and OnTrack. She does initial assesment on clients.

"Typically, clients are dealing with death of a family member, loss of function, loss of motivation, isolation and depression," she notes.

Peer counselors are different than psychologists, as they aren't trying to solve lifelong problems, but rather to be a supportive, listening friend who has been through many of the same issues of aging, says Stewart McCollom, 85, a former Jackson County commissioner and United Way president.

"It's loss of identity, loss of coping skills, loss of ability to play with the cards dealt by aging," says McCollom. "Maybe it's regret they shouldn't have married that second person after the first one died. Maybe it's about how their children put them in a nursing home."

Counselor Jim Martin, 80, a retired minister, says being a peer counselor "helps you feel useful instead of out of the picture."

"It's a look at our own future," says Poulton. "When I'm with people who are learning how to cope and being resilient, it gives me hope about our own future."

Age Wise, Age Well is supported by a grant from the Carpenter Foundation. It operates under the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and serves 60 clients, including those in two groups at assisted living centers.

The peer counselors of AWAW each take two or three clients a week and visit them in their homes, as many lack mobility. The service is free. It's for those older than 55, regardless of income. Applicants get an assessment before counseling begins.

Counselors get 36 hours of training over three weeks. Psychological experience is not required. A training of peer counselors begins Aug. 6. Applicants may call 541-857-7273.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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