A Gift to Brighten the Holidays

Be a Santa to a Senior program helps Canadian seniors to combat loneliness and enjoy their holidays.

“It’s important that Mary gets a pink housecoat not a blue one, so it takes some organizing” says Ryan Jershy, manager of Home Instead Senior Care. The company, which provides medical and non-medical care, everything from 24-hour nursing care to companionship, launched the Be a Santa to a Senior program nine years ago.

Since 2010, older adults across the Windsor-Essex and Chatham-Kent area in Southwestern Ontario post their wish lists on paper Christmas ornaments for a gift-giving extravaganza. Gifts and baskets, arranged by Jershy and his team, go to seniors who would otherwise not receive any other presents during the holidays.

When Jershy launched the event, he actually delivered all the gifts himself, but today he, his staff and volunteers, are delivering 250 baskets of holiday presents and about 1,100 gifts to more than 750 people.

In the case of many older adults, their families have left the Windsor area and the Home Instead Senior Care gifts are the only presents they are going to receive. Anyone can be sponsored who lives at home or in a care facility. Some facilities have as many as 20 names that need sponsoring.

“We’re trying to brighten up the Christmas season for older people who would otherwise get nothing” says Jershy, who begins the process of gathering wish lists more than a month before the gifts are to be delivered. On December 12th those who partner with this program come to his office for a wrapping party. The wrapped gifts are then delivered — all in one day. Even the Windsor Police help out. Gift baskets include staples such as blankets, lotion, soap, gloves and mittens, crossword puzzles and tissues (to name a few).

Every year, Jershy remarks that he’s seeing more lonely people so the program continues to grow. He’s partnering with St. Clair College’s Gerontology program and many other organizations in the Essex-Kent-Windsor area. A teacher at Massey Secondary School in South Windsor raised $350.00 with her students to provide 14 baskets.

Jershy adds that “everyone wants to stay at home as long as they can” so his service and this program help older adults to maintain fuller lives at home and in familiar neighbourhoods.

Loneliness, of course, is not unique to the Windsor area. As many as 1.4-million older adults say that they are feeling lonely, according to a recent report from Statistics Canada. It’s hard to imagine being entirely alone during the holidays, yet for many people (young and old), it’s the most challenging time of the year. Overall, about 20% of Canadian adults experience loneliness, according to Andrew Wister, director of the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University.

About one-quarter (24.6%) of the population in Canada aged 65 and over now live alone. Recent census data indicates that:

  • People over 65 have an average life expectancy of almost 20 more years, which is a long time to live alone.
  • While 72% of men over 65 are married and living with someone, only 45% of women are married, and 37% are widows.
  • Almost half of women over 75 live alone.

The Toronto Star points out, “One of the biggest challenges with addressing loneliness is that it is such a stigmatized condition that few want to talk about it or even admit to feeling it…. Aside from the misery it causes, it’s putting enormous pressure on health care systems.”

That’s why in January 2018, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, named a cabinet minister for loneliness to fight the condition. “One survey in Britain discovered that more than 9-million people often or always feel lonely. Another survey found that 360,000 people over 65 had not had a conversation with friends or family for a week, while 200,000 hadn’t had one in more than a month.”

Perhaps it’s time for federal and provincial governments to come together to devise a strategy to combat loneliness in Canada. The Be a Santa to a Senior programs, run by Home Instead Senior Care in offices across the country, are doing important work, but it’s impossible for care companies and volunteers to tackle this issue alone. Loneliness affects brain and heart health and can shorten life spans. “It’s worse for one’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, is as dangerous as obesity, and increases the likelihood of an early death by 26%,” according to former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy.

This year, Windsor’s Mary will receive the pink housecoat she asked Santa for, but there are thousands of other Canadians just like Mary who still need support.

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