Santa to a Senior: Program spreads holiday cheer for isolated elderly

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Twin Cities Pioneer Press

Like many seniors, Paula Amundson won’t get to be with family for most of the holiday. She lives in St. Paul, far from the rest of her kin.

But on Friday, Amundson received an unexpected gift from “Santa”: a large blanket, some stationery, candy and more. It was a gesture from an anonymous member of the community to show a little extra cheer over the holiday season. And Amundson, who lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood, was just one of dozens of seniors who received surprise gifts through “Santa to a Senior.”

The program resembles Toys for Tots, except senior care residents are the ones receiving gifts.

“We try to reach out to lonely and isolated seniors who don’t have a lot of family support and who may be going through some difficult health challenges. They might need an extra little pick-me-up this Christmas season,” said Lauren Bednar, a former representative for Home Instead Senior Care, a Nebraska-based company that provides in-home care for the elderly and operates the program nationwide.

Home Instead began the program in 2003 and watched it grow. Since its founding, more than 1.2 million gifts have been given to 700,000 seniors nationwide, distributed by 60,000 volunteers. It’s one of multiple Twin Cities programs dedicated to giving gifts to seniors at Christmastime.

More than 100 seniors in the six Twin Cities locations receive gifts each year, and that number is continuing to expand. This year, White Bear Heights Senior Living in White Bear Lake took part.

The program begins each year when people nominate seniors to be a part of it. There are no requirements.

“They’re just people who are nominated by somebody who feels like they could use a little extra Christmas cheer,” Bednar said.

Sometimes those nominating will ask for gift suggestions from the senior, but most of the seniors are kept in the dark about their nominations. Even when asked, the gift ideas are always humble. Socks and hand lotion are among the most common. Bath towels, blankets, candy, cookies, crossword puzzles, gloves, movies, stationery, sweaters and toiletry items are popular as well.

Community members buy the gifts, and many of them agree to package them at a wrapping party as well.

“All the gifts are there, you can see all of the wonderful donations that have come in, and it’s a really nice opportunity for the community to get together with some Christmas cookies and hot chocolate,” Bednar said.

Many volunteer to deliver the gifts as well — typically to surprised and excited seniors who want to know whom they can thank.

“Usually, they’re ecstatic,” said Kezia Wicklander, sales and outreach director at White Bear Heights.

And for the volunteers, it’s just as fulfilling.

“It’s a nice way to bring a little Christmas joy,” she said.

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