Helping Priests Navigate the Challenges of Aging

This article originally appeared in Northwest Catholic. 

A daily two-mile walk, crossword puzzles and weekly Mass at Providence Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle keep Father James Eblen active at age 83.

As a retired priest, he looks forward to spending time with longtime friends at the annual June retreat for priests at Ocean Shores. Last year, he was impressed by a workshop for his peers on dealing with dementia.

“The priests of our archdiocese are independent characters,” Father Eblen said. “But they are slowly getting the message [from the archdiocese], ‘We’d like to help you. Let us know what you need.’”

One of the ways the archdiocese is addressing the needs of the growing group of older priests is through Care with Grace. The program, established in 2018, is available to any archdiocesan priest over 70 years old, according to Nick Schoen, executive director of the archdiocese’s Office of the Vicar for Clergy.

Care with Grace connects priests like Father Eblen with a care manager to help come up with an individualized plan for facing the future.

Father Eblen’s first meeting with his care manager, Janet Pomeroy of the company VillagePlan, started out as a nice visit. And then she asked him, “What are you going to do when you can’t live in your condo?”

“It blew my mind,” Father Eblen said. “I hadn’t thought of that before.”

Pomeroy provides Father Eblen with resources, checks in with him regularly by phone (they usually get off-topic discussing current events) and occasionally goes to doctor’s appointments with him.

“Her persistence is impressive,” Father Eblen said. “Even if nothing is going on, she calls to ask, ‘How are you doing?’”

Care manager Janet Pomeroy checks in regularly with retired Father James Eblen. (Stephen Brashear)

A shift toward preventive care 

Many parishioners might not realize that diocesan priests receive a salary, Schoen said. That means each priest is responsible for paying for his own care and living expenses when he retires. Priests rely on archdiocesan pension and health care benefits, plus Social Security, to cover living expenses — including nursing home care or long-term care in an adult family home, Schoen explained. Some priests supplement their incomes with stipends paid when they substitute at parishes, including celebrating Masses and the sacraments, he added.

Before Care with Grace, the bulk of archdiocesan priest support funds (designated for priests of any age dealing with health or personal crisis expenses) was going to a handful of priests in crisis, Schoen said. Care with Grace was created to spend funds on preventive care, by engaging priests with care management, planning and navigation before a crisis occurs, he explained.

Pomeroy said the priests she works with seem grateful for the support, even though some might be reluctant at first to meet with her.

“I try to let them know I’m just there to listen to any worries or concerns they may have,” Pomeroy said. And if a health issue arises in the future, she tells them, “It’s easier to step in and help if I know you.”

Mary Lynn Pannen, a nurse who started the care management business Sound Options in 1989, began working with the archdiocese in 1997 as Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy’s care manager when he had leukemia. In 2018, when the company was bought by VillagePlan, Pannen said she and the archdiocese began taking a hard look at how they could be more “pro-prevention.”

“If we got the priests enrolled earlier,” Pannen said, “more crisis situations could be avoided.” The intervention seems to be working. Before Care with Grace, 12 priests (five in crisis situations) were receiving care management services.

Today, the archdiocese has 72 priests aged 70 and older; Schoen said 58 of them (81%) participate in the program. From 2018 to 2021, the number of priests in crisis has decreased from 40% to 6%, while the average cost of support per priest has decreased 50%, Schoen said.

“I think that we are helping priests take ownership of their health planning, including financial planning, so that when crises do occur, they have both support and financial preparedness for it,” he said.

Building trust for a better future 

Care with Grace care managers work to build trust with priests, to become their advocate and mediator, which can take time, Pannen said.

“We want to help them with their own independence,” Pannen said. “When they realize we aren’t there to take them out of their home or change them, they begin to open up,” she said. “They might tell us things they are not telling their families.” And if a care manager finds an unsafe situation, “we problem-solve to help them be safe.”

A care manager can help fill the gap when priests — like Father Eblen, whose closest relatives live in the Midwest — don’t have family members nearby. When relatives are available to help, Care with Grace works with them.

“If we can get the families to trust us,” Pannen said, “then we can go in and do the hard stuff.”

Anne Kettenring helped care for her brother, Father John J. Renggli, for four years before his death in 2019. (Courtesy Anne Kettenring)

Anne Kettenring, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Chehalis, helped care for her brother, Father John J. Renggli, for four years before his death in 2019.

“He needed help managing his health conditions,” Kettenring said, “and he couldn’t remember to take his medicine even if I told him 97 times.”

She worked with Pannen and other care managers, trying strategies like daily phone calls, but eventually they decided full-time care was Father Renggli’s best option, she said.

Another priest helped by Care with Grace was Father George O. Rink. Although his nieces, nephews and their spouses were looking after him, they needed additional support when his health began declining, said his niece-in-law Stacia Rink, who is a member of All Saints Parish in Puyallup and mother of seminarian Kyle Rink.

As he aged, Father George O. Rink was looked after by his nieces, nephews and their spouses. Care with Grace helped them when they needed additional support as his health began declining. (Courtesy Rink family)

When Father Rink became blind a few years before his death, the family wanted to do everything possible to keep him in familiar surroundings, Stacia Rink said. During his final years of life, Father Rink became bedridden, and the challenge was finding 24-hour care.

Care with Grace helped the family deal with those difficulties, she said, and Father Rink ultimately “ended up with a terrific, caring second family.”

Care manager Emma Skjonsby said most of the priests she works with are open to her assistance and excited to have a visitor.

“They are happy to show you the art they have collected or mementos received from parishioners,” she said. Even though one of the priests she visits is often in pain, he tries to make her laugh.

“He dusts off his sermon jokes just for me,” Skjonsby said.

Pomeroy said she loves the spiritual perspective of the older priests she works with.

“They are often more caring to us than we are to them,” she said. “It’s in their nature to give back.”

Father Eblen said some of his brother priests are reluctant to participate in Care with Grace, but others tell him, “Well, that sounds good. Let’s talk and see what we can do.”

Pomeroy said Father Eblen is always advocating for his fellow priests. “This is his work now,” she said. “He’s helping to look out for other priests.”

Even though Father Eblen remains active and feels confident in his medical care, knowing he has a care manager brings him a little more peace of mind.

“I know I have a reliable ally for what the future might send me,” he said.

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