Many people are uncomfortable talking about death. Juneau resident and retired biologist Carl Schrader isn’t one of them.
For the better part of the last decade, Schrader has supported people as they live out their final days in comfort as a hospice volunteer with Catholic Community Service. As a long-time volunteer, he stands at the ready to help patients and their families through the complex death and dying process.
Earlier this month, he was honored for his work as one of seven recipients of the Volunteer of the Year award given each year by the first lady of Alaska.
“I could really see a need out there. Not everybody is attracted to this type of work,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Schrader does many different things as part of his work, from delivering hospital beds to supporting caregivers, talking with people in their last days, and offering support to grieving family members.
“In our culture we tend to avoid thinking about death and dying. Most everyone likes seeing babies and kids, but the elderly and dying tend to be invisible. Our death is inevitable, but we all try to deny or at least ignore it,” he said.
Schrader said his Buddhist faith makes it easier for him to approach the idea of death and work as a hospice volunteer.
“My approach is to really face it. Don’t deny it. Don’t run away from it. As a Buddhist, you go to those places that scare you. The more you run away the more it chases you,” he said.
Schrader, who moved to Juneau from Seattle about 30 years ago, said that the work allows him to serve and care for his neighbors.
“One of the things that attracted me to Juneau is that it’s a community. I know my neighbors. Just by Juneau being semi-isolated, you get a sense of community here. I really feel it, and my volunteer work with hospice really encourages me. We take care of each other. We take care of each other because we are a community,” he said.
Schrader said that being around sick and dying people is difficult for many people, but that he has a greater level of comfort, and he’s learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“When I make a house visit, I take a few really deep breaths. Often you don’t know what you are getting into. I’m just there to be a caring human being,” he said.
Schrader said the process is liberating because it relieves him from worrying about himself or focusing on his nerves or feelings.
“I realize that I’m capable of being there for someone, just as a human being. I’m not put off by the apparent ugliness of the dying process. It’s an opportunity for me to practice compassion and support my neighbors in Juneau,” he said.
Though, he admits the work can be draining.
“It’s a very heavy time and can be very emotionally taxing sometimes to be in the presence of a dying person,” he said,
He credits a strong personal meditation practice and walks with his dog, Luna, with helping him to restore his emotional energy.
Schrader said that as he meets families during these stressful times, he’s witness to the best in people.
“People show their true compassion and it’s really beautiful,” he said.
Often, he answers questions about the process of dying.
“I explain that the body is shutting down and help people understand the stages of what’s happening,” he said.
Schrader said that explaining the death process to friends and family members makes it less upsetting for them.
“It really helps people,” he said.
Sometimes he helps family members process their stress about the situation. In other cases, he helps people deal with feelings about complicated family relationships.
Schrader said that a lot of his work goes to support caregivers.
“This is something that really surprised me when I got into this work,” he said.
Schrader explained that when a person is sent to hospice care, family members and close friends step in to help with day-to-day care with support from a team.
“It’s often a 24-hour a day job,” he said. “It’s one of the more challenging things.”
He said he helps by showing family members how to deal with straightforward, daily things like getting the patient to the bathroom or keeping their loved one clean. He also helps set up equipment and provides training to help families use it.
“Much of what I do as a volunteer is to support the caregiver. Being a caregiver is incredibly demanding both physically and emotionally. Often the caregiver is also elderly and may have physical limitations,” he said. “I look for anything I can do to be helpful. It’s often just simple things like changing light bulbs, taking out the trash, picking up medications, maybe walking the dog.”
Schrader said that he often offers to stay with the patient so family members can take a break and recharge.
“That’s when I get to spend quality time with people and get to know them. I get people to talk about their lives. I’m amazed at how amazing people are,” he said.
Schrader said that hospice patients often feel better after returning home.
“They are often quite perky and happy to be back at home. They get a lot better as soon as they come home,” he said.
He said the process of dying unleashes a wide range of emotions that can include fear and anger. He said that he’s there to stand as a witness and validate their feelings.
Some patients are eager to talk about their lives. Others have spiritual questions, he said.
“It’s really good to get them to talk about it. Some are very afraid of dying and it’s good to be as reassuring as possible,” Schrader said, noting that he listens and encourages people to share their religious perspectives with him.
Perspective on living
Schrader said that his hospice works give him a new appreciation for his life and helps him face his mortality, as he grows older.
“It makes me more appreciative of my life and what I have,” he said. “Someday, someone will deliver a hospital bed to my house,” he said.
He said that knowledge compels him and his wife, Sue, to live life fully.
“We better do what we can,” he said, adding that he enjoys being active outdoors.
“My end is not so theoretical anymore,” he said.
Schrader said that the people at Catholic Community Service make his work possible.
“It’s a real team with great staff, he said. “The entire team is just wonderful, and people are just incredibly caring people. People are so thankful and so grateful.”
Jessica Kinville, Catholic Community Service volunteer coordinator, said that Schrader is an important part of the team.
“Carl is a great person. He approaches his work with a sort of gentleness and is always an active, sympathetic listener,” she told the Empire in a phone interview Friday afternoon.
“A lot of people have felt very supported by him. He’s someone I can always count on. He always puts his heart into his work,” she added.
Schrader said that Catholic Community Service offers many senior services, and they are always looking for more volunteers.
“Here I am as a Buddhist, working for the Catholics,” he laughed.
“They have the organization and offer a lot of wonderful senior services,” he said. “We are all part of a compassionate team. We want to do what we can for people.”
Volunteer of the Year
According to the governor’s office, the First Lady of Alaska Rose Dunleavy chose Schrader as a recipient of the Volunteer of the Year award.
“Carl embodies the true Alaskan spirit and shares it through his camaraderie and passion,” the release said. “Carl is a compassionate ear for those in physical and spiritual pain, a warm presence for grieving families, and always on standby to set up a hospital bed in a living room. Carl has maintained consistent availability day-after-day, year-after-year; he is calm and patient in work that is unpredictable and emotionally taxing.”
Schrader is humble about receiving the Volunteer of the Year Award.
“I’m really accepting on behalf of the hospice team. It really felt like a shout-out to the nursing staff. I’m privileged to be a part of the team. The award really acknowledges the entire program,” he said.
Schrader was honored for his work at a ceremonial luncheon in Anchorage earlier this month.
“The reception was really good,” Schrader said. “It was nice to drop all the politics and just be there as people. We are all just people.”
Schrader said several volunteer opportunities are available through Catholic Community Service, including Friends of Seniors, which helps senior citizens with basic needs like shopping and dog walking.
He encourages people interested in volunteering to call Jessica Kinville, Catholic Community Service volunteer coordinator at (907)-463-6111.