Lillian Bassen remembers attending a meeting at a senior citizens' club in Prince George's County after she had turned 60 and deciding that it was not for her.
"Everbody seemed so old," she recalled.
Bassen later saw an advertisement in the Senior News, a tabloid published by the prince George's Division on Aging, seeking volunteers for a senior citizen information and referral service.
"I wanted the opportunity to get out of the house and this was a chance too to learn about the services available to senior citizens in the county," said Bassen.
A small, soft-spoken woman of 64, Bassen is one of 13 Prince George's County volunteer counselor-aides for the county Division on Aging. They are stationed at various locations throughout the county so that elderly persons can bring their problems to the centers on a walk-in-basis.
According to Ursula Nogic, project director, the counselor-aide program attempts to break down the false but prevailing image of senior citizens as persons who have somehow lost their capacity to serve society. Like Lillian Bassen, the seniors working as counselor-aides are healthy and vivacious and serve as role models for other people their age.
Nogic said that "trust and rapport is more quickly attained" when elderly persons can go to their peers for help.
The program also helps the Division on Aging learn the needs of senior citizens in Prince George's County and how much the elderly already know about the services available to them, Nogic said.
Sometimes the counselor-aides have been able to assist seniors in life-and-death situations. Brother Jonathon Daneski, a counselor-aide and member of the Trinity Missions, recalls arranging for the Fairmount Heights Volunteer fire department to bring kerosene to an elderly woman in an isolated area of that town who had spent two days without heat last winter.
The counselor-aides says that most often, however, the greatest they can offer is to be good listeners.
"I had an older woman call up one day and ask about the transportation available to take her to senior clubs. We got to talking for a while and she told me she had recently gotten an offer of marriage. She was a widow for 20 years and a friend wanted to marry her," Bassen recalled.
"Well, she told me her children objected. And she said she feared she was just being an old fool to think about marriage and romance. I guess I realized at that point that she just wanted to talk to somebody about her situation, somebody who was an outsider," explained Bassen, who says she once feared to admist to herself that she too was among the elderly. Bassen is stationed in the Bowie YMCA in the Bowie Shopping Plaza.
Like Bassen, who says she was told she was too old for any kind of work except typing jobs when she tried to go back to work at 46, the other counselors-aides said they decided to become involved in the Prince George's program for personal reasons as varied as their backgrounds.
Daneski, for example, said he saw the program as an extension of his ministry to help priests and other religious workers cope with growing older.
"If we can create positive attitudes on aging among the religious, then they can better relate to the people in the communities they serve who are aging," he said.
Esther Elliott, who with her husband Francis makes up a counselor-aide team in the Oxon Hill Library, explained, "My life is very pleasant. So all I wanted to do was to help those less fortunate than me."
Frances Jones, who was a librarian at the Smithsonian's Bureau of Institutional Services before retiring, she she just couldn't see herself "sitting home and playing bridge" after her retirement.
Her librarian's skills have been an asset in helping seniors and their families, she said, recalling the times she has referred people to books and publications that deal with the problems of the elderly.
Jones, who said she opposes mandatory retirement, recalled that she was nevertheless happy for the chance to learn about the resources for seniors in Prince George's County. "I spent my life working so in 30 years of living here, I never really had time to get acquainted with the county."
Before entering the program, the counselor-aides participated in a 10-week training course in counseling skills at the University of Maryland's counseling and personnel department. During this period, they became familiar with all the services and agencies for the elderly.
The volunteers received on-the-job training for one month at the Senior Information Center in the Fairmount Heights Library before being assigned to outreach centers.
These centers are localted at the Berwyn Heights Town Offices, 5700 Berwyn Rd., Magruder Library, 4330 Farragut St., Hyattsville; Help Laurel, 7th and Montgomery Streets, Laurel; the Oxon Hill Library, 6200 Oxon Hill Rd., the Bowie YMCA, Bowie Shopping Plaza; New Carrollton City Hall, 8511 Legation Rd., Prince George's Senior Citizen Health Center, 3717 38th St., Cottage City; Greenbelt Youth Center, 99 Center Way.
Seniors wanting to know the hours that these centers are open can call 925-4477. Anyone 55 or older can volunteer to be a counselor-aideby calling Nogic at 350-0650.