Lonely seniors brought gifts, companionship through holiday programs

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The holiday season is nearly upon us, but for some it can be a lonely time of year.

That's why programs throughout Minnesota are working to make sure seniors feel remembered during the holidays by giving them a gift – many times it will be the only gift they receive that year.

“[Seniors] sometimes get forgotten,” Arlette Preston, owner of Home Instead Senior Care in Fargo, told InForum. “Most people probably think there’s family involved, but there’s a lot of them that don’t have families.”

Home Instead Senior Care's Be a Santa to a Senior (which is a national effort) and the nonprofit Gifts for Seniors in the Twin Cities are among the programs that try to spread holiday cheer for lonely or financially challenged seniors who may not otherwise receive gifts during the holidays.

Preston told InForum that many of the gifts are small items, like socks, slippers, shampoo or gift cards.

Mildred, an 89-year-old widow who never had children and lived alone, was profiled in a piece about Gifts for Seniors by MPR News in 2005. She told MPR that knowing someone cared enough to give her a gift was more important than the gift itself.

The two programs are similar; people who want to participate can purchase a gift that will be donated to a senior in need. Gifts for Seniors has wish lists online here, while Be a Santa to a Senior has participating stores with gift lists – find locations here.

After receiving the donated gifts, the organizations surprise the seniors with the gifts in mid-December. Not only do the volunteers deliver the present, but they sit down and spend quality time with the senior – providing a social connection most have been needing.

Loneliness can affect health

Studies have shown that seniors who are socially isolated or lonely may be at greater risk of early death, U.S. News reports. Loneliness is associated with depression, poor health, decreased mobility and cognitive decline, but an Old Age and Loneliness report says health can improve if a person has companionship, satisfying family relations and activities with a sense of purpose.

“It’s pretty emotional,” Bernie Johnson, who is participating in the Be a Santa for a Senior program, told InForum. “Most of the clients we have for the program are very low income; they don’t have a lot. A lot of them don’t have family here.”

Since the Be a Santa to a Senior program began in 2006, it has provided 1.2 million gifts to more than 700,000 seniors nationwide, according to its website. Gifts for Seniors began in Hennepin County in 1994 and has since donated gifts to 30,000 seniors, including to 2,938 seniors the Twin Cities last year.

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