Making happy holidays for seniorsby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
"Shut ins" is the old expression for people who do not have a lot of contact with the outside world. There are thousands of people in Minnesota -- no one knows for sure how many -- who are older and who have no one looking after them. A Twin Cities area Gifts for Seniors program reaches nearly 3,000 isolated older people. For some, it is the only human contact they have during the Holidays.
St. Paul, Minn. — Representing Santa on Christmas Eve afternoon in St. Paul is Amy Michael. Her sleigh is a gray Ford Windstar minivan.
Amy Michael is visiting the St. Paul home of 88-year-old Johnny Mclean.The native of Jamaica has lost a good deal of his hearing and some zest for life.
Mclean says he does not believe in Christmas. "Every day is the same day for me."
Mclean's face brightens when he sees the Gifts for Seniors bags handed to him. His spirits really perk up when the subject turns to Amy Michael, who clearly plays a bigger role in his life than Santa.
"I met the best friend that money cannot buy," Mclean says.
Friendship appears to be the message of the holiday season most important to him.
Johnny Mclean lives in a modest St. Paul home with no immediate family nearby. His wife of 62 years died five years ago.
His two adult sons live in California and by his own description Mclean says living with them would not work.
Mclean lived alone until recently.
Amy Michael suggested 72-year-old James Hadley become a renter in Mclean's house. Amy has brought Gifts for Seniors items for Hadley as well.
Hadley says she keeps tabs on him. "She takes me to the doctor, she makes sure that I've got sufficient enough food to eat, teaches me how to spend money so that I won't run short."
Amy Michael is the service director for the Summit University Living At Home Block Nurse Program in St. Paul. She helps these two men and hundreds of other isolated and vulnerable older adults deal with life.
There is a lot to deal with.
Some are poor and need help finding services for health and nutrition. However, many have some money, if even a modest amount. Michael says there is not shortage of people out there -- scammers, even family and friends -- preying on them and taking advantage, she says, of their isolation.
"They are so open because they are so isolated and they trust people and somebody who is nice and kind when they don't have anybody to speak to all day they're going to let you come on in."
One of the founders of the 14-year-old Gifts for Seniors program is Kristine Poelzer.
Poelzer says she started the program in part because she was struck by how a term once used for infants struggling to survive also applied to a growing number of old people.
"They used to use that term for babies, failure to thrive, and now we have seniors who are failing to thrive. They see no purpose in life."
So Poelzer, who works for Hennepin County, organized hundreds of volunteers. They include social service agencies, businesses and individuals. They donate goods, cash or their time to the Gifts for Seniors program.
Every year, businesses and other groups sponsor sites as collection points for the gifts.Starting at Thanksgiving and continuing into the New Year, volunteers deliver gifts to thousands of isolated older people in 13 Twin Cities area counties.
Poelzer says the personal delivery of a gift by a volunteer is for many recipients the highlight of their holiday.It also gives the cooperating agencies, including Amy Michael's Summit University Living at Home Block Nurse Program, a chance to see if more help is needed.
Many times, Michael says, the need they see is help with transportation.
People looking for a chance to go beyond holiday donations, she says, can always offer volunteer transportation services for helping people get to banks, doctors or the grocery store.
"That doesn't cost much ...and it would be so helpful."
Johnny Mclean, his bag from the Gifts for Senior program next to him, says the work of Amy Michael is a big help.
"Everything that you can mention, she do it for me."
The holiday for Johnny Mclean and his housemate, James Hadley, isolated by circumstance and the passing of years, includes a visit and packages from the Gifts for Seniors program.
- All Things Considered, 12/24/2007, 5:49 p.m.