Ministry enriches lives of seniors, volunteers alike
by Sheila Myers
Special to the Leaven
LEAWOOD — “One who makes room for the elderly, makes room for life,” said Pope Benedict XVI recently. “One who welcomes the elderly, welcomes life.”
Judging by that standard, Tom Garbach is a very lively guy. So are Mike Bartkoski, Jeanne Hokanson and the 30-some volunteers involved in elderly ministry at Church of the Nativity in Leawood.
Garbach and his team help conduct prayer services, assist at Mass and work with Nativity priests to bring the sacraments to elderly parishioners. It’s an immense outreach effort.
“We have close to 25 percent of the [nursing] homes in Johnson County,” Garbach said.
About 250 elderly parishioners reside in those 10 homes within Nativity’s borders. Garbach credits his volunteers with the ministry’s success.
“It’s the people and the parishioners who have the heart and want to minister to go out to do that,” he said.
Connecting to faith
The ministry exists because of the determination of elderly parishioners with a strong desire to stay connected to their faith.
One in particular, in fact.
Ten years ago, Hazel Craemer was a widow in her 80s, who found herself a reluctant resident of Brookdale Place in Overland Park.
Determined to practice her faith, the spirited Craemer phoned Nativity and asked for someone to bring her and the other residents Communion.
“[Hazel] had no desire to be there,” Garbach said. “But she rolled up her shirtsleeves and thought, ‘If this is where God has me, I’m going to do this ministry here.’”
Craemer was eventually connected to Andrea Frary, Nativity’s director of ministries. Frary lacked the support to conduct the ministry, so she trained Craemer as a eucharistic minister.
Over time, Craemer recruited more Catholics to participate in prayer services and rosaries. When the group grew to 15, Brookdale started bussing them to Nativity for Saturday Mass.
“[Hazel] was very sociable and every time a new person entered the home, she would find out if they were Catholic,” said Garbach. “She encouraged them to ride the bus to church and to pray the rosary with them.”
When time came for Frary to retire, she approached Garbach about taking over as Nativity’s director of ministries. Garbach had been volunteering for Nativity for some time by then and was looking for a way to transition out of a 20-year career with General Electric.
“I thought it was the chance of a lifetime,” he said.
A growing ministry
The elderly ministry is just one part of Garbach’s job, but it’s the part that’s grown the most.
“The graying of our population is happening at a very fast pace where we are,” said Garbach.
According to the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging, Kansas now ranks 10th among states in the percentage of the oldest old: persons aged 85 and older.
Helping the elderly stay connected to their faith helps enhance their quality of life, whether they live in a nursing home or in their own homes.
Nativity is ahead of the curve in meeting this need, thanks to a steady flow of volunteers interested in this kind of service.
People learn about the ministry on Stewardship Sunday, current volunteers invite their friends to help, or someone steps forward when a family member or friend moves into a nursing home.
“It never ceases to amaze me that whenever the need arises, the Holy Spirit puts it on someone’s heart that they would like to minister,” he said.
Whatever the reason they became involved, volunteers are surprised to discover that they receive far more than they give.
Discovering the joy
Three years ago, some friends invited Mike Bartkoski to help distribute Communion to residents at Villa St. Joseph in Overland Park once a week.
Now, Bartkoski spends every weekday and Sunday morning visiting 15 to 20 residents at Brookdale. He also visits a few parishioners in their homes, including his former high school English teacher.
“I’m still trying to get my grade changed,” he joked.
He never would have pegged himself as a minister to the elderly. But now, he can’t imagine giving it up.
“It’s become such an integral part of my life that I almost miss not being able to do it,” he said.
When he arrives at the home, Bartkoski checks in with the staff, who let him know if someone is having a particularly good or bad day. He greets each resident, they chat for a few minutes, pray and then he gives them Communion.
He spends 10 to 15 minutes with each resident.
Bartkoski is most impressed by the way the elderly respond. Even if they are skeptical of his motives at first, they eventually warm up to him and share pieces of their lives.
“You become familiar and you hold their hand, and when you do that, they’ll take yours and you realize it means just as much to them as it does to you,” he said.
He often encounters familiar faces. Bartkoski regularly gives Communion to Father Frank Horvat, the former pastor of St. John the Baptist on Strawberry Hill.
No matter what the resident’s condition — some suffer from advanced Alzheimer’s disease, others are bedridden — they always sit at attention when he announces he is bringing Communion.
“Once you start to pray, they always remember,” he said. “They make the sign of the cross, they pray, and then they go right back to who they were before.”
Mary Marnett, 79, is bedridden, but Bartkoski’s visits mean a lot, said her son, Tim.
“Mom’s faith has always been foremost in her life,” he said. “She probably prays two-and-a-half hours a day.”
A person can understand the importance of faith just by looking around Mary’s room. Her children have filled it with treasured religious articles, including a picture of the Blessed Mother that belonged to her grandmother and a crucifix made with wood from a tree near St. Munchin’s Church in Mary’s hometown of Cameron, Mo.
Bernie Welsh, 97, has always been a member of Nativity. Since moving to Brookdale, he enjoys the prayer service led by Garbach every Monday and the monthly Mass celebrated by Father Al Rockers. Welsh also rides the bus to Nativity for Saturday Mass.
“My faith is important to me,” he said.
Rosemary Wolak, 88, is another Nativity parishioner who recently moved to Brookdale and participates in all the religious activities.
“This has been wonderful for me,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful, uplifting experience. I get a lot out of it.”
Besides the work of Garbach and his team of volunteers, the ministry wouldn’t be possible without the help of Nativity priests.
Father Al Rockers, senior associate in residence at Nativity, visits several homes to say Mass, hear confessions and anoint the sick. He said it was a “happy coincidence” when Father Francis Hund assigned him to the ministry.
“It’s always been my preference,” said Father Rockers. “I am helping people come to terms with the ultimate mysteries of life and death.”
In the elderly, he said, “I see a trust in Jesus. They say, ‘He’s my good shepherd.’ The great majority feel this way.
“For some, they are having difficulty accepting the Lord’s forgiveness — maybe because of some incidents in their lives they are not proud of,” continued Father Rockers. “[I encourage them] to trust in Jesus’ forgiveness.”
Likewise, bringing comfort and spiritual nourishment to the elderly is an important ministry. Father Rockers encourages anyone considering it to go ahead and get involved — even if they don’t believe they have a special talent for it.
“Most of those who do work in this ministry soon discover the skill is in coming [to the elderly] with faith, being kind and gentle, and listening,” said Father Rockers.
Like most volunteers, Jeanne Hokanson started by helping with the rosary and Communion services and grew to like it. Nine years later, she is still helping. She brings the Mass kit, distributes song sheets, and helps distribute Communion at Father Rockers’ Masses.
The Brookdale crowd has grown considerably now that residents call their friends ahead of time to remind them to go to Mass.
“I think we might have the largest senior living community in terms of numbers at Mass,” Hokanson said of the Brookdale group. “It’s been wonderful.”
Educating the community
The large elderly population has triggered a demand from the parish community for information about age-related issues.
“Adult children have come to me to talk about a parent with Alzheimer’s,” Garbach said.
He coordinated two presentations with the support of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas: one on hospice care and another on Alzheimer’s. Both presentations were well attended.
He is now brainstorming ideas for a third presentation in February 2013, possibly on strokes and heart disease.
As Garbach and his team strive to serve Nativity’s growing elderly demographic, they continue to reap rewards.
“Their stories are so rich, so meaningful,” he said. “We can learn so much from them if we take the time. Once you know who they are, they share with you how God has worked in their lives.”
For Bartkoski, the ministry is a reminder that “God really has his hooks in us.”
“Even though [some of those he visits] may want to deny it or fight it,” he said, “at the end of the day, God’s always there, and they all know it.”
Bringing Jesus and the faith to these people at the end of their journey in this world can teach the volunteers themselves about the beauty of old age, and perhaps it can make their own journeys easier.
And, like Pope Benedict said during his visit to the elderly, “The quality of a society or civilization can be judged by how it treats the elderly.”
The parishioners of Nativity are raising the bar.