'Be a Santa to a Senior' program brings holiday joy to older adults

Volunteers, caregivers and clients help to wrap around 2,000 donated gifts for seniors that have been collected for Home Instead's "Be a Santa to a Senior" program at the organization's Pittsfield office on Thursday.
Volunteers, caregivers and clients help to wrap around 2,000 donated gifts for seniors that have been collected for Home Instead's "Be a Santa to a Senior" program at the organization's Pittsfield office on Thursday.

PITTSFIELD — For the past 12 years or so, the staff at the local Home Instead Senior Care have invited community members to "Be a Santa to a Senior" by sponsoring a gift or a few of them for older adults in the county who might otherwise be overlooked during the holidays.

Each November, members of the caregiving organization set up a Christmas tree display in area Stop & Shop supermarkets as well as at Berkshire West Athletic Club decorated with paper "bulbs." Each bulb contains the first name of a local senior and a few things on their holiday wish list.

Gina Isenhart, a licensed practical nurse and community relations manager for Home Instead, said at the top of the lists are practical items: "Warm socks, warm throws, gift cards to the grocery store or a pharmacy item," she said.

But others, Home Instead Human Resources Director Sylvia Les said, might surprise potential sponsors.

One year, someone asked for a picture of John Wayne. Last year, there was a request for a picture of Marilyn Monroe. Often, there are requests for stuffed animals and doll clothes.

Among other unique requests: a Himalayan salt lamp; an Amazon Alexa device; a case of Snapple iced tea.

"Even though some of the gifts may sound a little strange for a senior to request, there's a reason behind it," Les said.

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According to data from the 2018 Massachusetts Healthy Aging Community Profile, about 15 percent of the state's residents are age 65 or older, or 1,016,679 people. About 30 percent of those people live alone, and in Berkshire County, the rate of older people who live on their own is even higher, up to 43 percent of seniors.

Les explained that photographs of celebrities of their generation might spark nostalgia for older adults. For people with memory loss symptoms, stuffed animals and dolls are used as therapeutic tools to provide emotional support.

In assisted living facilities, or for seniors who can't get around much on their own time, having a supply of favorite snacks and beverages can be a truly comforting treat.

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"Some people don't even ask for things for themselves," Les said. "They'll ask for pet food."

Be a Santa to a Senior is a national Home Instead campaign. The first year the Pittsfield agency participated, staff collected gift donations from the community to help 75 seniors. The recipients' names are given to Home Instead by way of referrals from area councils on aging, community centers and other human services agencies.

This year, Home Instead received 310 Berkshire County senior names and gift lists.

"We'll probably wrap between 1,500 and 2,000 gifts," Les said.

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"[The program] just grows and grows every year, but the community is amazing," Isenhart said.

The Dec. 2 deadline to sponsor a specific senior has passed, but general donations of funds or gifts like warm throws, snacks and gift cards are always welcome. To help wrap the gifts, Home Instead enlists a number of volunteer helpers from area nonprofits and school groups. Among the Santa's helpers are members of Home Instead's own Friends Club day program for people living with dementia.

Isenhart said that the Friends Club members find a sense of pride in being able to help others. Children from local elementary schools help color and decorate white paper gift bags in which gifts are distributed.

The Home Instead staff tries to make sure every gift is fulfilled. Delivery this year will take place during the week of Dec. 15. Any surplus donations, like candy, socks and toiletries have, in the past, been packaged and donated to local programs like Hospice and Soldier On, as well as sent to troops overseas.

Volunteers also help deliver the gifts, which Isenhart said is the most rewarding part.

"[Recipients] will invite us in to sit down and have cocoa and coffee and talk," she said. "The gift really is connecting with those who are receiving."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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