Keeping spirits bright for local seniors

Efforts aimed at making sure they are not forgotten during holidays

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter



Did you know?

Loneliness and poor health are linked, according to several scientific studies. For example, the University of San Francisco recently found that people 60 and older who reported feeling lonely saw a 45 percent increase in their risk for death. Isolated elders also had a 59 percent greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts.

Over half (55 percent) of respondents to a 2010 AARP survey who reported being in poor health also reported feeling lonely; just one-quarter (25 percent) of those who reported excellent health also felt loneliness.

According to the AARP survey, higher-income older people are less lonely than lower-income older people. Forty-five percent of respondents with income of less than $25,000 a year reported feeling lonely, as opposed to 29 percent of respondents with income of $75,000 or more.

Lonely people are less likely to be doing things that build social networks, such as attending religious services, volunteering, participating in community organizations or spending time on hobbies, AARP found.

Almost half (45 percent) of those who had left a familiar old home for a newer one — like a nursing home — within the last year reported feeling lonely.

Want to play Santa Claus for a lonely senior citizen?

Several grass-roots efforts are afoot in Clark County to make sure that senior citizens aren't forgotten this holiday season.

Sherrie Conrad and her sister Carrie started "Elves for Seniors" last year. The effort is aimed largely at low-income senior citizens who live at Columbia House, a subsidized Vancouver Housing Authority building in Uptown Village, because the sisters' parents live there — but Sherrie Conrad said nothing would please her more than to spread the effort farther.

"I see all the time these residents who are alone on Christmas. There's nobody to do anything for them," said Conrad, 35. "You see everybody helping out kids, you see 'Toys for Tots,' but you don't see anybody thinking of the elderly."

So the sisters inaugurated their own Christmas event at Columbia House. They got a couple of Main Street businesses to agree to host donation barrels, and the community filled them with stocking stuffers.

"My nephew dresses up as Santa Claus, and my sister and I are the elves, and we give out stockings for all," she said. It happens at an annual Christmas dinner at Columbia House, she said.

But this year, the only business that agreed to host a barrel is more obscure, and in a more obscure location, too. It's Kakadu Traders Australia, a small clothing manufacturer at 8100 N.E. St. Johns Rd., Suite E108 — and donations have been slow to arrive.

"We had a great year last year. This year we're having a hard time," Sherrie said. What's needed, she said, are stockings and stocking stuffers.

After their "Elves for Seniors" delivery last year, Sherrie Conrad said she happened to share an elevator with one Columbia House resident who was weeping -- with gratitude, it turned out.

"She said she'd never gotten a Christmas present before," Conrad said.

Visit Elves for Seniors or call 360-566-5521.

Seeing purple?

If you see purple Christmas trees at restaurants and businesses you patronize, it's probably not your vision going funky. It's probably the Be Santa to A Senior program that's sponsored by Home Instead Senior Care and a group of community partners — including nursing homes, health care companies and the Friends of the Elder Justice Center.

The purple trees are studded with ornaments that are actually gift wishes from residents of five local nursing homes. You can pick up a wish, go purchase the gift and bring it back to the purple tree it came from. From there, volunteer "elves" will collect, wrap and deliver the gifts on Dec. 17, 18 and 19.

"A lot of these folks have outlived their family and friends. At Christmas, they are forgotten," said Dianna Kretzschmar, whose overlapping roles in caring for seniors in this community made her a natural to spearhead this effort. Kretzschmar's job is business development manager for Home Instead, a business that provides itinerant caregivers for senior citizens who want to stay in their own homes; but her volunteer passion is serving as president of the Friends of the Elder Justice Center, supporters of an effort by the Clark County Prosecutor's Office that aims to crack down on abuse, scams and other crimes targeting vulnerable senior citizens.

She said nursing homes are best for the Be Santa to a Senior effort because their residents are often desperately needy, both financially and socially.

"We chose nursing homes because these folks survive on $62 a month for their personal needs" since that's the long-term benefit for people living on Medicaid, said Kretzschmar. "You're not allowed to have more than $62. If you want magazines, if you want TV Guide, if you want a warm lap robe and slippers, you have to buy them out of that. These are luxury items you and I take for granted."

One nursing home resident recently requested barbecue chips for his Christmas gift, she said. "They're not asking for anything much. That's the saddest of all," she said. "Let's be a united community in taking care of them."

Here's when and where those purple trees can be found. (Why purple? Kretzschmar said the Friends of the Elder Justice Center are "trying to make purple the color of senior issues." It sponsored an awareness-raising "Turn the Town Purple" Day this past June.)

Now through Dec. 9:

• Luepke Senior Center, 1009 E. McLoughlin Blvd.

• The Rock Wood Fired Pizza and Spirits, 2420 Columbia House Blvd.

• Riverview Bank, 915 MacArthur Blvd.

Dec. 9-16:

• The Java House, 210 W. Evergreen Blvd.

• Torque Coffee Roasters, 501 Columbia St.

• The Columbian Newspaper, 701 W. Eighth St.

Learn more at Be a Santa to a Senior.