We all know those idioms about finding the good in difficult circumstances – phrases like “making lemons into lemonade” and “finding a cloud’s silver lining.” Oftentimes, we dismiss such platitudes, thinking they aren’t possible in the real world. And yet, we regularly enjoy lemonade without acknowledging the lemons that went into it, failing to notice the people in our midst who embody this principle.
Etta Martin spends three days a week at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, where she facilitates support groups, counsels individuals and trains staff members. The licensed clinical social worker has been in the mental health field since the year 2000 and has worked at the center for approximately three years.
Her specialty is geriatric social work, which she pursued largely because of her own experiences. Martin took care of her mother, who suffered from dementia and Parkinson’s Disease, for 8-1/2 years. She was an “only child” with no children of her own, and her father requested that she take care of her mother when he passed away.
A hair colorist in New York, Martin left her job and moved to California after he died, to become a caregiver to her 85-year-old mother. It was challenging and eye-opening, enduring her mother’s failing health and the burden of responsibility as a family caregiver.
It was the growth she experienced in this role that laid the groundwork for her second career. Beginning at Los Angeles Valley College, Martin spent more than six years in school, earning a bachelor’s degree at California State University, Northridge and a Master of Social Work from USC.
“Taking care of my mom actually turned out to be the best experience of my life. I grew as a person in so many ways,” Martin explained. “We’re in a field where your own life experience and your own personality is what you bring to the table.”
Martin’s experience included employment at a mental health facility in Sherman Oaks and she worked for nine years at a residential facility for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
“After I retired I was asked to come to the Santa Clarita Senior Center and have been there ever since,” she said.
She runs two groups on Tuesdays for emotional support and grief and loss, and Fridays she holds support groups and workshops for family caregivers.
“I’m really concerned about (caregivers). They need to take better care of themselves, so we talk a lot about self-care,” Martin said. “Caregivers are afraid to ask for help. Sometimes they think, ‘Nobody can do as good a job as me.’”
In regards to Santa Clarita, specifically, the social worker has noticed that local seniors have a lot of resilience, and she said the individuals who attend the groups take the groups seriously.
“It took a while to develop a core group of people,” Martin said. “They know they need it, they know it’s going to benefit them, and they’re willing to do the work. You can’t just show up and not really process what you’re going through, your feelings.”
Over the years, Martin has been able to see how seniors handle their vulnerability. In many cases, it’s foreign to them.
“I tell them it’s a sacred place where their feelings are validated,” she explained. “A lot of people don’t understand and are afraid of emotion. For older folks – their feelings have been devalued, the importance of really connecting to your emotion.”
Developing a bond
Core members of support groups at the Senior Center tend to develop a bond.
“I think the people that come do form relationships,” she said. “They genuinely care about each other and they feel they’re not alone.”
The emotional support and grief groups have approximately eight members currently. And the caregiver support groups and workshops each draw about 6 to 10 individuals.
“You don’t want more than 12,” Martin said. “I don’t want to be the (only) one that talks. It’s okay if you want to listen most of the time, but from my experience, if you don’t say anything you’re going to feel short-changed when you leave, and you’ll feel regret.”
It’s important for members of the groups to speak up at their own pace, however.
“Why I’ve been here (in the mental health field) for 30 years is that people never cease to amaze me – I’ve never been bored,” she said. “Seniors have developed some amazing coping skills.”
The admiration goes both ways.
“Etta is amazing,” said SuzAnn Nelsen, director of support services at the Senior Center. “She’s a senior herself, she’s totally enthusiastic. And not only does she run the support groups, but she also supervises interns.”
Like Martin, Nelsen is a former caregiver who was inspired by the challenge of her own experience handling the difficulty of her late husband’s illness.
“I personally experienced it,” Nelsen said. “But I had this wonderful support around me and it was great.”
The Senior Center’s Tuesday support group began in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake, according to Nelsen. “People were terrified. They had a lot of emotions,” she said. “A lot of them lived alone.”
The group evolved into support for people who had illnesses or personal problems, and a need to be with others. “There’s always been a steady need for the support groups that we have, to know there’s somebody else experiencing something similar,” Nelsen said.
Which is why Etta Martin is such a valuable part of the Senior Center’s work.
“I went through it with my own mom,” Martin said. “Especially caregivers, when working with people who have dementia, the families who are so terrified and go the opposite direction really miss out on it all. That’s the journey, and if that’s the journey, treasure every moment.”
The SCV Senior Center is hosting an annual Caregiver Resource Day called “Knowledge is Power: Aging with Dignity” on Saturday, Sept. 15 in the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital education building from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. For information, call Ricki Sawyer at 661-259-9444.