Helping older adults help other older adults

This opinion piece was published in the Daily Journal on September 21, 2022:

The U.S. population is growing older, and that is especially apparent in our local community. According to California Department of Finance population projections, San Mateo County will grow by more than 150,000 residents 65 and older by 2050. As the population increases, their needs increase as well, specifically those related to housing, transportation, social isolation, mental and physical health, and employment. Unfortunately, the pandemic only intensified barriers to health, well-being and economic vitality, particularly for those in under-served communities. This is where Peninsula Family Service steps in.

The PFS Older Adult programs are designed to help people stay connected to their communities, neighbors and passions. Understanding the importance of providing emotional support, wraparound services and helping older adults build community, PFS programs promote health, mobility, independence and reduced rates of illness and injury, as well as ensure aging members of our community live better, together.

As a trusted provider of older adult services in San Mateo County since the 1970s, PFS has seen the needs of our older adult community evolve. One increasing challenge for older adults is mental health, as demonstrated in the 2021 California Master Plan for Aging. To address the overwhelming need for supportive resources and lack of available mental health professionals, PFS offers several culturally competent services that address the unique needs of older adults in San Mateo County, one of California’s most ethnically diverse regions. One of the organization’s most in-demand programs is peer counseling, serving hundreds of the community’s older adults.

The PFS Peer Counseling program supports San Mateo County residents, 55 years and older who may be depressed, lonely and isolated through weekly one-on-one meetings and group support, using trained peer volunteers who share similar cultures, language and backgrounds. The program prioritizes the underserved in the community including Chinese-speaking, Filipino, Spanish-speaking, African American and LGBTQ+ older adults.

Peer counseling fills a critical gap for older adults with unique and varied needs including addressing generation gaps and differences in culture sometimes in their own family. The visits also provide companionship and compassion.

Why peer counselors for older adults?
An older adult is more likely to accept support from someone of their own age and similar background than from a professional therapist. Peer counseling helps remove stigma by developing positive trusting relationships between adults struggling and a peer who can not only provide compassion and empathy, but can also normalize mental health issues through sharing their own personal stories and those of others. Volunteers rely on evidence-based strategies and tools they learned from their training to engage their participants, which include active listening, assertive communication and techniques for coping with anxiety, depression, loneliness and other emotional challenges.

Participants also develop connections beyond their counselor through group sessions, which are offered in a variety of languages in Daly City, San Mateo, Redwood City and the coastal cities of Pacifica and Half Moon Bay.

The program recruits volunteers who attend an initial 30+ hour peer counseling training and undergo background checks. Each volunteer is also provided with monthly clinical supervision and in-services training provided by professionals in the field on important topics related to older adults. Once background checks are complete, the volunteer is matched with at least one participant and they meet on a weekly basis via phone, Zoom or in-person meeting. The peer counselor’s goal is to provide emotional support and connect the participant to needed resources, including professional mental health care. Trained peer counselors also provide weekly drop-in group support that are held in-person or via Zoom throughout San Mateo County.

The Bay Area has grown and evolved over many decades, and PFS has been there every step of the way — providing support, caring for our neighbors and becoming a deeply trusted part of this community. We are grateful to share our legacy and ongoing mission with so many members of our community, as we continue to bring support, education and resources to those who need it most.

PFS is hosting an open house for those interested in becoming a Peer Counselor 2-3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 24 Second Ave., San Mateo, CA 94401. The Peer Counselor training begins Oct. 11 to Nov. 9 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on Zoom. Call (650) 403-4300, ext. 4389 for details.

Stella Zeng, LCSW, MSW, MSG (she her, hers), is the director of the Peer Counseling Program for Peninsula Family Service.

This opinion piece was published in the Daily Journal on September 21, 2022. 

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