Seamstress Irene Anderson says counseling calmed her, helped her deal with emotional and physical pain and begin to get her life organized. (Ian Terry/The Herald)

Seamstress Irene Anderson says counseling calmed her, helped her deal with emotional and physical pain and begin to get her life organized. (Ian Terry/The Herald)

Senior peer counseling offers a source of reassurance

By Jennifer Sasseen

Special to The Herald

Pain is a fact of life in Irene Anderson’s world.

The 71-year-old Tulalip resident suffers from a host of ailments, including fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and, for at least the past five years, bouts of shingles that leave her feeling depressed and helpless; she never knows if she’s facing days or weeks of shingles pain.

She is also pre-diabetic and has had three serious head injuries, the first in 1991, when she fell in front of a Lynnwood business complex and struck her head hard enough to lose consciousness.

Fibromyalgia, which the Mayo Clinic says is “characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues,” can seriously disrupt a person’s life. Researchers believe it intensifies pain by changing how the brain processes pain signals.

“You feel like the nerves are on the outside of your skin,” Anderson said.

There is no one cause for the condition, although researchers cite genetics, infection and physical and emotional trauma — and there’s no one treatment.

Neither she nor her doctor “believe in pain medications or over-medicating,” Anderson said, so she lives with the pain and takes an antidepressant. “It calms me so that I can deal with it,” she said. “And it also keeps the nightmares away.”

What it can’t do is help Anderson with two issues she believes are related to her pain: Anger around her older sister’s death in 2011 of pancreatic cancer, and an inability to organize her possessions in the house she shares with her daughter.

An accomplished seamstress now working for a client on directions for sewing a snowboarding suit, Anderson sews, knits and crochets despite pain from her various ailments. She has boxes of fabric in her sewing room and piled around the living room. Knitting supplies and unfinished projects share the space.

For a time, it was overwhelming.

“I could not finish a project,” she said. “I would start cleaning or something and walk away and do something else.”

Then about two years ago, she said, a counselor at The Everett Clinic referred her to the Senior Peer Counseling program at Homage Senior Services, then called Senior Services of Snohomish County.

Peer counselors, 55 and older, offer free emotional support and counseling to other seniors, according to the Homage Senior Services website.

The peer counselor selected for her helped set her on a new path, Anderson said. The counselor, a volunteer near her own age who had worked through some issues of his own, visited her weekly for more than four months, she said, bringing literature from Homage Senior Services on the topic of organizing and, sometimes, on emotional issues.

“At the very beginning, it was a time of his evaluating just where I needed the help,” Anderson said. And as her life became more organized, she found the the time “to get rid of the anger.”

Anderson said her anger was rooted in family dynamics that were formed after their mother’s death from polio in 1949, when she was just 3 and her sister, the oldest of seven siblings, was 12. It also related to her sister’s refusal decades later to accept her help as she lay dying.

Now, she has mostly released that anger, she said — but she needs to keep sorting out the clutter in her life “because if you have clutter, your thoughts are going to be cluttered.”

A care companion assigned to her through Homage Senior Services is now helping her get rid of things, Anderson said, but she wishes she’d had the physical help at the same time as she received the counseling.

Still, she described her counselor as “very caring” and said it was therapeutic having someone outside of family to talk to about her issues. “It just frees you up,” she said. “Nobody else is here, it’s between the two of us.

“And I felt I could really express my feelings. I could talk about the anger over my sister’s death, I could talk about how I felt, how the injuries were affecting my life.”

Anyone who feels they might benefit from senior peer counseling can contact Homage Senior Services.

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