GracePointe Crossing chaplains provide seniors with spiritual care

By Elizabeth Sias

Norm Norland and Len Ochowicz agree: working with the seniors at GracePointe Crossing has been one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives.

The two GracePointe Crossing chaplains spend their days providing spiritual care to the hundreds of residents, staff members, volunteers and families at GracePointe Crossing, enriching lives on a daily basis.

GracePointe Crossing Chaplains Len Ochowicz, left, and Norm Norland provide spiritual care to residents, staff, volunteers and families at GracePointe Crossing. Photos by Elizabeth Sias

“I don’t like to refer to it as work,” Ochowicz said. “This is what I’m called to do. This is a vocation for me. It’s part of everyday life. This is the only position where I’ve truly enjoyed coming to work.”

Norland echoed the sentiment, adding that working with seniors in particular is rewarding because of the valuable lessons they have to teach from their life experience.

As part of their chaplaincy, Norland and Ochowicz conduct regular worship services for residents, but they also provide one-on-one visits, which can range from a simple welcome to helping those with special needs adjust to providing grief support.

Before his chaplaincy at GracePointe,  Norland pastored three different churches and was on staff at two others for over 30 years. He also volunteered as a hospital chaplain in Duluth and Cambridge for close to 20 years and has been involved in the Sheriff’s Office Chaplaincy Program. He started his chaplaincy with GracePointe Crossing about seven years ago.

Ochowicz has been with GracePointe for six years, beginning as a part-time chaplain and becoming full-time within the last five months. He also has experience as a hospital chaplain and originally worked for Lutheran Brotherhood in downtown Minneapolis. He had been with housing working with assisted living, memory care and independent townhouses, and recently moved to the care center working in Gables East and Gables West.

In the pastoral role, Norland said, there are more administrative duties. As chaplains, the two have similar responsibilities for prep work, but work with the campus administrative team that takes care of the “nuts and bolts,” allowing more time for them to focus on spiritual care.

GracePointe Crossing Chaplain Len Ochowicz chats with residents during their knitting group Thursday afternoon.

“When I came here, very quickly I realized that these people each have their own unique story,” Norland said. “These are real people with real stories, with real needs and real feelings. These are some incredible folks.”

The residents aren’t the only people who have come to appreciate the chaplains. GracePointe Crossing Community Relations Director Julie Tooker said Norland and Ochowicz have made a difference in countless lives.

“The roles that they have help enrich the lives of those that are here,” she said. “These guys are everywhere, they really are. In the good and the not so good. There’s some sad times, too, and they’re the first ones on the scene to help in those situations.”

Tooker added that many residents refer to Norland and Ochowicz as pastor, which she believes is the sign of a close relationship.

Some residents maintain a relationship with a local church, though, and when pastors come in to visit or conduct services, the chaplains take on a supplemental role, Norland said. And for those who look at the chaplains as pastors, he said they are more than happy to fulfill that role.

GracePointe Crossing is one of the few campuses with two full-time chaplains, but working with up to 450 residents and 600 full- and part-time staff members has its challenges.

With such a large population, both Norland and Ochowicz agree that balancing time with their ability to reach out can make it difficult to connect with people in a timely fashion. Residents are their priority, however, which helps structure their days.

Working primarily with seniors also presents challenges, the chaplains agreed, but building relationships with them and hearing their stories has been rewarding.

One of the questions that comes up most often, Ochowicz said, is ‘what did I live for and what purpose was I here for, and what can I share with my family and children?’ which enables the chaplains to freely share positive insights, hope and answers.

“It’s just a wonderful, wonderful way to lift up the richness that is in people’s lives,” he said.

Norland said the deep faith many of the seniors have is an inspiration, and it’s his hope to give back to them.

“I love the incredible variety, the insights that these people have, the stories they have, to realize that this is probably one of the hardest working generations that’s been around,” he said. “And to realize they have given so much to their families, to their communities, to their churches, and now it’s our incredible privilege to be able to give back to them. We can never give back in the proportion that they’ve given, but we can do our best and give back to them for all of their years of service.”

GracePointe Crossing Chaplain Len Ochowicz chats with residents during their knitting group Thursday afternoon.

People are sometimes uncomfortable around older people, but touch is important, Norland said. When visiting with one particular woman, he’ll often get down on one knee with her and hold her hand while talking to her. He then looks her in the eye and says “you have a good day, ok?” and she replies “you, too,” and invariably kiss his hand.

“You have an experience like that and you breeze through the day,” Norland said. “These are some incredible people.”

While visiting with a woman with dementia one day, Ochowicz said, she called herself stupid. He said “no, you’re not,” but she continued to tell him she was stupid, saying her mind wasn’t working. He told her that happens, but she kept insisting until all he could do was hug her, supporting her with the power of touch.

“You try to build confidence in your children to be independent and to live well and then when you come to the fall season of your life, it’s trying to build confidence in them and saying ‘you are important, you are valued,’” Ochowicz said.

Whether they’re conducting services or visiting with residents, the GracePointe Crossing chaplains fulfill an important role on campus.

To Tooker, the affect of having two chaplains on board couldn’t be clearer.

“These gentlemen have touched an awful lot of lives,” she said. “You can go into any building and company and be cared for, but both of them enrich the lives of everybody that walks through the doors, and that’s huge.”