The holiday season, for most, is a time of togetherness, happiness and gift giving. But for many senior citizens living alone or in assisted living facilities with little family contact, the holidays are less joyful.
Home Instead Senior Care, an in-home elderly care franchise network, has worked since 2003 to promote holiday cheer by collecting and delivering presents to lonely and financially challenged seniors through its nonprofit Be a Santa to a Senior program.
This season, the company’s South Florida franchise, Home Instead Senor Care Miami, amassed some 2,500 gifts for an estimated 1,000 senior citizens, according to Gabriel De Armas Jr., director of business and community development.
De Armas brought the program to Miami in 2004 after hearing about the concept, which began a year earlier in Texas. Since then it has become a company-wide holiday tradition.
“This is our 13th year doing [Be a Santa to a Senior], and it’s a wonderful thing to do during the holidays,” he said. “Older adults are usually neglected during the holidays, and it really brings a quality of life to these folks.”
At the beginning of the holiday season, the company gathers a list of names and gift ideas from adult assisted living facilities. The information is then written on paper “bulbs” and displayed at collection spots hosted by participating local organizations and businesses.
People can then visit the Be a Santa to a Senior website, find a location, “adopt” seniors by removing their bulbs, purchase and drop off unwrapped gifts, and, if they wish, write to them in greeting cards. The gifts are then collected, wrapped and delivered to the seniors.
There is no limit to the number of gifts that can be bought.
Depending on need and ability, some locations forego the bulbs in favor of collecting gifts and goods specified by activity directors at assisted living facilities. But regardless of what method the items are collected, De Armas said the gifts remain very personal.
“It’s not just a collection of items; it’s specific items for specific people with names,” he said. “We’ve gotten requests for an easel and art [supplies] — all kinds of things. We’re able to get these individuals personalized gifts.”
Be a Santa to a Senior started small in Miami, with only a few participants the first year collecting between 40 and 50 gifts for a single nursing home. But every year, it grew in scope and involvement.
“The second year, we doubled it, and before you knew it we were quadrupling our numbers,” he said. “Last year, we hit 1,000. That’s a lot of people.”
Since Be a Santa to a Senior began, more than 60,000 volunteers have helped distribute 1.2 million gifts to 700,000 seniors nationwide, according to the website.
De Armas said he makes it a point to take his children with him to drop off gifts at a few locations every year and encourages other volunteers and youth organizations to do the same. Some of the visitations, he said, have resulted in lasting relationships between the seniors and children, some of whom return on other holidays throughout the year to check in with their older friends.
“What that has done is created its own wave, and intergenerational relationships have spun from that,” he said. “Giving is living, and at the end of the day we’re only as good as our memories. I try to instill that in my kids.”