This year some 5,600 older adults who are isolated, homebound, disabled and/or living on a fixed income in Washington or Oregon will receive a visit from Santa. But don’t tell them—it’s a surprise.

Susan Nocella, director of the Santa for Seniors program at Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW), said this year’s holiday bag, valued at $60, will include a reusable tote bag with a plush lap blanket, a tumbler with lid and straw, a magnifying glass, a calendar, a jigsaw puzzle, a tree ornament, a night light and more, depending on community donations.

The gifts are made possible by the William A. Looney Family Foundation, which is providing a minimum of $15 million to bring the Santa for Seniors program to several states in addition to Washington. Its goal is to reach 100,000 people in the next 10 years.

The program started when Looney, a Tacoma, Wash., businessman, donned a Santa suit to visit local nursing homes. He brought gifts and made sure residents felt special. This gesture so inspired him that he created Santa for Seniors through the foundation before he died in 2015.

“Bill was a dreamer and a visionary, so going national with Santa for Seniors would be right up his alley if he were alive today.”

The foundation’s mission is remembering the forgotten. Looney’s legacy has become a national campaign to ease the loneliness of isolated older adults.

Since 2015 the partnership between the Looney Foundation and LCSNW, an ELCA-affiliated social service agency, has grown steadily. That first year the program served a little over 100 older adults. This past Christmas it provided more than 4,200 low-income older adults in nine Washington counties (and, for the first time, one in Oregon) with gift bags and homemade cards and ornaments. A few “elves” volunteered to assemble gift bags that first year; today there are a few hundred.

The elves come from youth, scout, church and high school groups and from companies offering employees a day off for social service.

The youth are included in assembling the gifts as well as in community-engagement activities that promote awareness of older adults and connect different generations, Nocella said.

The program partners with low-income senior housing, nursing homes, food banks, home-delivered-meal programs, home-care agencies, community resource centers and more to reach these older adults.

More than a gift

“There are many reasons why a senior might be isolated and/or homebound, including a lack of transportation and lack of income,” Nocella said. “Isolation can have a negative physical and mental impact.”

Ultimately the Santa for Seniors program is about more than a ribbon-wrapped gift.

“While we want to honor and acknowledge our seniors, we also hope to bring social engagement and reconnect seniors to the community and to resources they may need,” she said. “I try to ensure the gifts are practical and useful, but also comforting. I have heard many stories from seniors that this is the only thing they receive.”

For the last three years, the facilities have been under tight COVID-19 restrictions with limits on outsider visits. “We would like to be able to participate in Christmas parties with Santa once again handing out Santa for Seniors gift bags,” Nocella said. “It would bring extra joy and Christmas spirit to seniors who are living in isolation. But we aren’t there yet. Hopefully, as our program expands in the next few years with help from the $15 million Looney family gift, Santa will be able to come out of his workshop again.

“It is amazing how many seniors enjoy this interaction.”

“It is amazing how many seniors enjoy this interaction.”

The warmth of Christmas magic extends to other times of the year as well, lifting the spirits of lonely, aging people. Last spring 1,700 gift bags were distributed with items such as umbrellas and mini flower-growing kits. The program makes a huge difference for homebound seniors in the greater Puget Sound area by connecting them to resources that improve social determinants of health. For example, LCSNW offers fall-prevention classes, dementia services, Senior Companions, Meals on Wheels and other social supports vital to living a full life.

“We’ve developed a program that can really open the door to in-home seniors,” said David Duea, president and CEO of LCSNW. “Bill was a dreamer and a visionary, so going national with Santa for Seniors would be right up his alley if he were alive today.”

Looney’s $15 million gift, unprecedented in size for LCSNW, will sustain his goal that every older adult feel remembered, not forgotten.

Learn more about “Santa for Seniors.”

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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