Emily P. Brito had two close calls driving last year: Twice she tried to brake, but her foot wasn’t doing what she thought her brain was telling it to do. A neurologist advised her it was time to give up driving.
On June 14, her 75th birthday, she turned over her license. “That really cut my wings,” she says.
That was an adjustment in and of itself. Then her husband of 55 years died barely a week later, just three weeks after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. “I felt like my world was caving in,” Brito says.
Brito’s challenges were profound, but not uncommon for someone her age. She didn’t want to over-burden her children, and all her doctor could offer was a light tranquilizer to help her sleep. So she arranged for free peer counseling in her own home, and talked it through with a volunteer counselor from the nonprofit Alliance on Aging. “I felt I was walking up this steep hill, facing something really hard. [In counseling], I was able to talk, and I could break down if I needed to.”
Peer counseling helped Brito adapt to her new reality. She decided to become a peer counselor herself, and trained last September in Alliance on Aging’s intensive 30-hour program.
It was their first-ever Spanish-language training, a new focus for a program that’s been around for 18 years, and serves some 600 older adults a year.
Social Worker Patricia Ortiz oversees outreach to the Latino community, and has launched four Spanish-language peer support groups in Greenfield, Soledad and two in Gonzales.
“People talk about abandonment, depression, adjustment to illnesses,” Ortiz says. “Loss and grief is a major subject. Not just losing people to death, but their children move, and there’s a lack of visits.”
She says there’s still a large unmet need for mental health support in rural Monterey County, particularly among Latinos. “In this culture we value independence,” Ortiz says. “One barrier in the Hispanic community is we value interdependence.”
That means she does a lot of door-knocking, becoming part of the extended family – the personalismo in an older person’s life available to talk about the challenges of aging.
A key advantage of peer counseling, she says, is helping Latinos overcome stigma. “Seeing the doctor, they automatically interpret it as being crazy,” she says.
Brito now leads a weekly peer group in Salinas, where she says she’s still learning how to cope herself. “We need to talk, we need to cry, we need to laugh,” she says. “And we are always learning from each other.”