‘You sort of live out the end of their lives with them’

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When his ailing father in Montana couldn’t make it to church for Mass anymore, Eagle River resident Joel Klessens called their hometown parish in Montana and requested someone deliver the Eucharist to his dad, Frank Klessens. He was so relieved to arrange that outreach for his father from thousands of miles away that Klessens felt inspired to pay it forward, to homebound parishioners of St. Andrew Church in Eagle River.

Klessens’ first assignment in the local homebound ministry was to visit an elderly man and bring him Communion. That man shared a name, Frank, and a birth year, 1929, with his own dad.

“I took that as a sign that this is where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing,” Klessens said. “It’s a really rewarding ministry, one of the most rewarding I’ve done. It’s actually as much about the visiting as the Communion.”

Christians are called to visit the sick as one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy, based on Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Most parishes facilitate a ministry dedicated to this service.

At Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, Paul Lariviere coordinates the homebound ministry. It centers on delivering the Eucharist to the homebound, but occasionally someone will decline Communion and seek only company and comfort to relieve isolation.

“Just being there, listening, is a remedy in itself,” Lariviere said. “It’s very important to the people who receive it. They are very appreciative and very much look forward to that day of the week. Their children are really appreciative.

“It’s a very fulfilling and humbling ministry.”

The outreach will only see greater demands in the coming decades as Alaska is home to the fastest-growing 65-and-older population per capita in the country, according to state demographer Eddie Hunsinger. He said many of these individuals moved to Alaska in the 70s and 80s for jobs in the oil industry and the booming economy. They settled here permanently, while many of their adult children relocated out of state. A quarter of elderly Alaskans live alone, and Hunsinger said Alaska’s senior population is projected to increase more than 15 percent by 2030.

The remote nature of Alaska leaves many seniors isolated as they near the end of life.

“A lot of them have nobody, no family up here. They’re alone.” Klessens said. “I look forward to seeing them. It’s particularly meaningful for me because my parents live Outside.”

Since a recent stroke, a brief doctor appointment is an exhausting feat for Eagle River senior Peggy Redgrave. She accepted gratefully when a parish administrator offered delivery of the Eucharist, and she tremendously enjoys Klessens’ visits. He chats with Redgrave for 45 minutes or more before conducting a streamlined service and ministering the Eucharist.

“It helps me a lot when he visits,” said Redgrave, still struggling with language since the stroke. “He’s a sweetheart, an absolute sweetheart.”

An inevitable challenge of reaching out to the homebound is losing those who’ve become close through regular conversation and sharing. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Care & Compassion ministry serves from five to eight homebound parishioners, including three centenarians until recently when one passed away.

This work of mercy is greatly rewarding and fulfilling, agree Lariviere and Klessens, if bittersweet.

“I’m not afraid of death anymore. You see the last years of people’s lives. It’s not a bad thing — to be there with them is rewarding,” Klessens said. “You just get so much more back than you give. These people have lived a full life and have so much wisdom. They open up to you, and you can open up to them. Once you’ve developed a relationship with them, you sort of live out the end of their lives with them.”


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