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Senior Spectrum Newspaper
October 2017
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Senior Spectrum Publications

Adding Life to Years
by Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
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Navigating health care: Senior Health Advocate Volunteer Program 

Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss

The Senior Health Advocate Volunteer (SHAV) program, which I have written about in past articles, has developed a trained volunteer advocate base that provides elders and their caregivers information and education about appropriate local community resources available to them to meet their needs and promote healthy, independent, active and safe lifestyles. This activity meets the Reno Senior Citizen Advisory Committee strategic plan goals and objectives relating to eliminating information gaps for seniors and caregivers and improving access to senior-related information to improve health outcomes. In addition, the SHAV program works to identify and develop partnerships, health advocacy programs, and financial sponsorships to support senior services that promote healthy, independent, active and safe lifestyles as well as increase volunteer opportunities for education and advocacy by and for elders. It especially helps elders advocate for their own health and wellness as well as help their peers secure the appropriate and timely services and programs that are needed.

We have found through county and city strategic planning processes that not knowing what services are available, contact information, eligibility requirements, and costs are tremendous inhibitors of obtaining the appropriate services for seniors. Our goal is to empower elders with the tools, educate, and train elders and their caregivers about services available. When the services are not available, help develop alternative methods to make them available and affordable to meet their needs. In order to accomplish this we have built partnerships with community organizations to seek resources to meet the ever increasing senior service needs.

The dominate needs of elders in our community include developing untapped resources that can be mined for senior services such as a volunteer base that can provide for multiple needs. Such identified needs as transportation, socialization, healthy behaviors and activities, educating seniors about available resources, and expand programs, facilities, and personnel to meet those needs can be achieved through the SHAV program. The SHAV program advocates for enhanced services to meet the ever increasing needs of our growing senior population and educate them as to what currently exists. The SHAV enhances communication, educates the elder in need about the available senior resources, provides tools to determine service eligibility, and educational methods for improving health and wellness.

Senior Health Advocacy services promotes the health, dignity, rights and quality of life of seniors and disabled, services that make a difference in people's lives. In previous Senior Spectrum articles I have introduced the Senior Health Advocate program that we now provide through AmeriCorps VISTA support. The services that are provided at no cost by trained volunteers (Senior Health Advocates) make a significant difference in people's lives. This program is also supported by the City of Reno Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, Truckee Meadows Park Foundation, and the national AmeriCorps VISTA program.

An example of the SHAV impact comes from the lack of information by adult children who care for their aging parent and many elders themselves. They wished they had known about the many resources/services that are available in the community. It's typical that people don't seek out information about services until there is some crisis and something is needed. Adult children caregivers become emotionally drained about what to do with Mom or Dad who are losing capacity when there simply aren't funds to care for them when they have to work and can't leave them alone. Some have lost time at work, especially when they can't afford a professional caregiver or have other family or friends available to help. Our SHAV was able to steer them towards the Resource Brochure and discussed options like the Washoe County Senior Center's daybreak daycare and other local volunteer companion programs such as the Senior Outreach Services or the local Seniors in Service program, which can provide some respite. In other cases, family caregivers have made similar comments about not knowing there are resources for ‘respite' – some didn't know that respite is ‘a break for the caregiver'. They didn't know that they could take mom or dad to an assisted living facility for a few days or a week, or have a caregiver for a period of time – and, at no cost in many cases. The Senior Health Advocate volunteer role is to help inform, educate, and empower to minimize cases like these.

Our SHAV's help facilitate the elder to become aware of their overall health, needs, and available resources. Programs of similar intent around the country have found that the initial assessment is usually completed in the elder's home through several individual tools that the elders use themselves to determine what services are needed. From the information gathered in the interview and use of the tools, recommendations of services can be made. Each person's service recommendations are unique and individualized. Education and review of conditions and services is an ongoing process, so the SHAV's can provide short term help to see the elder through a crisis or long-term help by acting as an ongoing advocate for multiple issues.

The SHAV looks beyond the obvious needs of elders to become advocates for their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Whether one is faced with a new diagnosis, recent surgery or hospitalization, chronic health problem or a longterm illness, the advocate program can provide educated information about services and compassionate support. Communication is critical and ongoing. The Senior Health Advocate will keep in contact with the elder, their caregiver, and the family and stay up to date on a regular and continual basis. Communication is frequently provided by phone or in person.

The work the Senior Health Advocate Volunteer does is important to the health and well-being of the elders in our community. So if you or you know someone that wants to volunteer in helping their peers, please refer them to me. What better way to “add life to years”.

Lawrence J. Weiss, Ph.D. is CEO of the Center for Healthy Aging. Dr. Weiss welcomes your comments on this column. Write to him at or c/o Center for Healthy Aging, 11 Fillmore Way, Reno, NV 89519.