Karnes 'Ministers' To Seniors

March 1, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — A letter Steven Karnes received from his grandmother more than 30 years ago sparked his interest in working in senior services.

His grandmother had raised seven children, had moved from her large home to a small mobile home, and was caring for her husband who was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

"She was 85 and she was feeling isolated and frightened," recalled Karnes, campus administrator for Covenant Village of the Great Lakes. "She kind of poured out her heart to me. Her letter blew me away, because I didn't realize that people in their 80s were struggling with some of the same life issues that I felt I was working through as a young 20-year-old."

He figured other seniors were likely facing similar difficulties, so he started doing volunteer work in nursing homes and retirement communities. Though Karnes originally toyed with the idea of a career in parish ministry, the more he got involved in senior services, the more he felt it was the right fit for him. So instead of going into the seminary, he started working on his master's degree in health care administration at the University of Minnesota.

"I really see this as a ministry, as well," Karnes said of his 30-year career in senior services. Since 1977, he has held top administrative positions in nursing homes and retirement communities in five states. "Thirty years later, this still feels like what I should be doing."

Having grown up in Lansing, Karnes returned to Michigan in March 1992 to be closer to his family and became administrator of Baywood Nursing Home in Ludington. He also served as administrator of Hudsonville Christian Nursing Home and Sunset Manor and Village in Jenison prior to joining Covenant in April 2002.

"Covenant Retirement Communities was a national organization that I had been aware of during all the years I was involved in retirement communities, and I always had a lot of respect for what they're doing across the country," Karnes said of his decision to join the organization. Covenant operates 14 retirement villages in the United States.

"Also, the idea of starting a brand new campus was really exciting to me. It's not very often that you have an opportunity in a career to start a brand new campus."

In the nearly four years Karnes has been with Covenant, he has overseen its growth from a 63-unit assisted living apartment facility to a 30-acre continuing care community with 104 one- and two-room apartment homes and a licensed, Medicare-certified skilled nursing facility with 37 beds and a 24-hour nursing staff. Covenant also offers Medicare-certified rehabilitation as well as hospice care. It recently broke ground on an 84-unit expansion of the residential complex, which is slated for completion in early 2007. Seven acres of land bordering the complex was recently purchased with future expansion in mind, Karnes said.

"I think the uniqueness of Covenant Retirement Communities is that we really focus a lot on building community," Karnes remarked. "One of the things my grandmother could have benefited from is a community of people. On a campus like this, people can have a sense of belonging and participation not only within the campus but in the greater community. We work hard at building those bridges between the community and our residents."

That sense of community, he said, is reflected in the way residents watch out for each other, support one another and get together with one another. Covenant has a 12-member, elected resident council that meets regularly to discuss any concerns or issues residents may have. Residents write their own bylaws, and Karnes thinks that also helps solidify a sense of community.

Covenant has a wellness center with a full range of resistance and cardio equipment, a pool, sauna, whirlpool spa, steam room, and instructor-led fitness classes. Social, educational and cultural programming is also offered, some of it in conjunction with the Aquinas Emeritus Center. 

The facility has private lounges and dining areas, computer workstations with broadband access, a creative arts center, a children's playroom and outdoor playground, a beauty salon, barber shop and gift shop. It also has an in-house Macatawa Bank facility that offers personal banking and financial planning services two and a half days a week.

To help residents maintain their connections to the greater community, Covenant provides transportation so they can stay actively involved in their churches. Residents also participate in fundraisers, such as the Memory Walk for Alzheimer's. For the last two years, Covenant has raised more for the Memory Walk than any other organization in town, Karnes proudly notes.

Residents participate in blood drives both on and off campus. They maintain an in-house drop-off center for canned goods and clothing for the needy. Some residents knit articles of clothing and donate them to Spectrum Health child services. They also participate in the community by voicing their opinions at the polls.

"We have a high percentage of voters," Karnes said. "We invite candidates to come in and talk." He envisions more resident involvement in the community, particularly in the West Side neighborhood where the complex is located.

One of the many things he says he enjoys about his work is hearing residents' personal histories.

"I get a lot out of just listening to their stories, and people get a lot of telling their stories. People need to tell their stories. And I love when we can bring people together to minister to each other."

Karnes seems to take a lot of personal satisfaction in watching residents interact with others both within and outside of the Covenant retirement community, or "watching community happen," as he puts it.

"At times I picture my grandmother here. I wish she would have had this. This would have been the answer to a lot of her needs and her need to talk to someone who understood what she was going through as she aged."    

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