Saturday, December 01, 2007

Secret Santa

Secret Santa gifts for my senior, Helen

This year, David and I decided to volunteer as Secret Santas for two elderly seniors in need. The Secret Santa organization provides Christmas presents to isolated seniors who don't have much family or community support, whether they live in a nursing home, assisted living, or on their own.

Our decision to become Secret Santas was based on the fact that we have plenty to share, and also because we recognize that isolation can be a dangerous thing for anyone. I have little family of my own in Calgary, and find it very lonely myself at times. My father, who lives far away, is also waiting to go into a nursing home. He is well-supported by my mother and a large extended family, but still he feels alone and afraid being outside the comforts of home, routine, and removed from the life he always led before the illness. A lot of sadness and fear comes with that. It can't be easy.

My grandmother, who is also well-loved and visited, lives alone as well. My family is struggling to convince her of the need for home care, or a volunteer to visit on the days when they can't, but she insists on her independence. She is surrounded by family but still complains of being "alone" and not feeling important.

David's grandparents still live in their own home, but their needs are increasing. His grandmother is very active and cheerful, but his grandfather's health is failing. His Grandma acknowledges that she will not be able to drive much longer, and that she no longer likes to cook. If they can't get out for their weekly restaurant visits and errands, they will soon be isolated in their home. They will soon need help. Luckily, they have family and friends who call and visit. Not everyone has this support.

So, we decided the least we could do was reach out to someone who doesn't have phone calls from family, nor many visitors.

The Secret Santa people sent us the names and Christmas wish list of two seniors.

My senior is named Helen and is a size medium and lives in assisted living. She is 80. This is all I know about her. Her identity and location remain anonymous, as does ours. We will simply deliver our gifts to the elves at Secret Santa head office and they will be delivered to the senior from "Santa". David and I would have liked to meet our seniors, but we recognize the need for privacy in these situations. And not everyone is as sane and normal as we are, so we understand that the system needs to keep the seniors and the donors names anonymous.

Helen wrote a Christmas wish list, and asked for the following: a stuffed animal; a shawl or wrap; a hat, mitt, and scarf set; a bottle of perfume; and a calendar. All the clothing items needed to be machine-washable.

So I shopped and purchased her a very soft little stuffed bear, a lovely fleecy red scarf, hat, and mitts that are machine-washable, a fleecy wrap (raspberry coloured - not shown) also machine-washable, a bottle of Burberry perfume (which I wear myself, and which is lightly-scented) and a watercolour fine art calendar.

Little bear ready to go in the bag

It is difficult shopping for someone you don't know, and whose hair and skin colour you don't know either! Women think about these things. Would this look good on her? I would never buy red for myself (I am too fair and it looks dreadful on me), but there was limited selection of colours (mostly grey, black, and white) in the items I bought, so red was the obvious most cheerful choice. I didn't want to send my senior a pile of black clothing, which is too dreary, albeit practical. I just hope she looks good in red! I also sent her a wee broach (the girl at the store said all the older ladies love these little Christmas pins, and David's grandma always has one on). I also sent chocolate (a small box), which I know isn't good for seniors and there is an abundance of it at Christmas, but at least she can offer to treat people with it, which is part of being included in the Christmas spirit.

David's senior is a man named Andy, who is 79, a size large, and lives in assisted living. Andy, being a sensible-sounding man, requested puzzle books, after-shave and socks. David also sent a set of blue towels and some reindeer stickers for his window. We sent them both a wooden ornament with their names on it.

The gift-wrapping protocol specified that the gifts could not be "wrapped" but rather just packed in bags with tissue, with the gifts visible, and with the senior's name and code number on the upper right side. The gift also had to include a list, tucked into the top of the bag, listing the contents. This allows the elves who work for Secret Santa to ensure that all the gifts are appropriate and meet the profile that was given.

David's gifts for his senior, Andy

After Christmas, I have also decided to volunteer as a "friendly visitor" for an isolated senior. I just sent in the papers, and they have to do a police check. After that, I will be assigned a senior who hopefully has some things in common with me. We will have weekly visits, and I have volunteered for a one-year committment. It is a lot to commit, with my work, and headaches, and the fact that I want to get back in shape and take some courses in January. But I also think it is too important NOT to do. There are too many people isolated and lonely. There is just no need for it when people like me are available to help! I don't have kids, and I don't have a lot of my own family here in Calgary. So I will benefit too! I can't wait!!


  1. It is sooooo bitterly cold today just as you describe. I had to go put gasoline in the tank, which would have been enough to chill me to the bone without the howling wind and frigid temps. I had hoped to Christmas shop, but decided that it was just too intense so I'd return home. And now here I sit with my tea, hands are still thawing out, reading your post. My dear girl, you have got it just right. I remember back when I first read your blog...the nasty plane flight...where you spoke about the milk of human kindness. This is evidence that there is good and right in the put to action. I know that you have and will continue to find great joy in giving this way. Sending you many bright and warm...very warm...thoughts!

  2. Terri, this is really a special post. And you are a special girl to think of doing something like this. Makes me a little choked up, realizing my grandparents are all gone. How kind of you to share what you have with a lonely sweet lady.

    You're the best!

  3. It was delightful to read of your secret Santa project and also of the senior friend programme you signed up for. What a difference one person makes for those around her! When we lived in Alberta, my daughter asked our neighbours if they would be adopted grandparents because hers were so far away. It's nice to make a stand-in family when none of your own are around (, if you don't get along with them....)

  4. What a wonderful thing to do, Terri! I bet you will have a lot to learn from each other, and I am sure the experience will be richly rewarding for both of you!

    I've been thinking about you and your Mum and Dad...I hope things are looking up and that your Dad will be settled soon.

    All the best,

  5. Oh my goodness, I really enjoyed this post. I used to work in a care home all through university. Your post made me think of how deeply some seniors are affected by the holidays. It can be such a difficult time of the year for so many. I know that a gesture as lovely as yours will truly bring some smiles and warmth. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  6. That's such a nice thing to do!

    This year because Donovan is still so little and needs nothing, we decided to buy a gift that we knew he would love when he was older (a black and decker tool bench with all the accessories, kid set of course) and donate it to a kid in need.

    Things like that really make Christmas was it's supsosed to be. I'm so happy you shared this with us!!

  7. i think that's amazing. i'm so glad you're doing this.

  8. What a great idea Terri. good for you two.

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  10. The above was just to get your attention! ;>

    Surprise...heh, heh,'ve been tagged. (Yes, I did it! I'm sorry!) Only if you have time and inclination, though. Darting off...

  11. Terri, this is such a warm and humane gesture...I can imagine the happiness you will bring to that one special person.