Sunday, February 5, 2023


Program aims to help lonely seniors during the holidays

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Blankets are just some of the items donated to "Gifts for Seniors" at the Golden Valley Library. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki)
The holidays are a time when thoughts turn to children and families -- memories of children opening presents in a flurry; memories of Christmas dinners with several generations gathered around big tables. But for some of the elderly who live alone, these memories are bittersweet because they evoke thoughts of family members long gone. One volunteer group is trying to alleviate some of that loneliness through a program called "Gifts for Seniors."

Minneapolis, Minn. — Mildred, who's 89, isn't feeling so well today. She thinks she might have the flu so she's been spending a lot of time in bed. Her hair, streaked with strands of gray and white, has gone awry. She wears a flannel housecoat with a crocheted collar.

During this holiday season, Mildred thinks of her late husband and likes to tell this story.

"When my husband was living we'd have cocktail hour now and then, and then he would get in the kitchen and cook. I was lucky because we were married -- I don't know how long -- and I told him I couldn't cook," Mildred says.

For years, her husband did all the cooking. Her secret got out, Mildred says, when her husband became ill with pneumonia.

"He was in bed and he said, 'Boy, I'd like some scrambled eggs.' So I went out in the kitchen and fixed them. And I brought him a tray and he said, 'You so and so; you could cook all this time!'" she laughs.

Mildred's husband died several years ago. They had no children. Her two sisters are dead. So she lives alone in a Minneapolis apartment with her cat, Gracie.

The Gifts for Seniors program gave Mildred a $20 gift certificate towards her groceries. It, and a gift from the Osteoporosis Foundation where she once volunteered, were the only presents she got last year.

There are a lot of senior citizens out there who had no one, no family, no friends, little or no contact with people. And during the winter it tends to be more isolating.
- Kristine Poelzer

The Gifts for Seniors program began in the Twin Cities in 1994. It grew out of a conversation between Kristine Poelzer and a friend who worked at KLBB radio. Poelzer worked for Hennepin County, coordinating volunteers to help the elderly.

At the time, KLBB played music from the 1940s and '50s, and was aimed at an older audience. Poelzer says the two were talking about how KLBB employees could help during the holidays.

"So I said, 'What do you do?' And she said, 'They do things for children.' And I said, 'That's great, but how about for your listening audience, those people who have no one and could use a day-brightener of sorts?' And she said, 'That sounds like a good idea. What do you have in mind?' And I said, 'I don't know, how about gifts for seniors?'" Poelzer recalls.

The two friends created the program and began asking for donations. Six weeks later, they began handing out gifts.

"It became very clear that there were a lot of senior citizens out there who had no one, no family, no friends, little or no contact with people. And during the winter it tends to be more isolating," Poelzer says.

Poelzer says they use other agencies that work with seniors to identify the elderly who might need gifts. In Mildred's case, that was Store-To-Door, a volunteer group that delivers groceries to seniors who can't make it to the store themselves.

Poelzer's group works with many organizations as a conduit to not only locate lonely seniors, but also to hand out the gifts.

The group gives out more than gift certificates. The donations range from new cardigan sweaters to blankets to books of stamps -- whatever a senior seems to need most.

Mary Rodeski stands by a bag filled with several gifts, including a bright green afghan and a crock pot. Rodeski is director of adult day care centers in Annandale and Buffalo. She knows specific people who will enjoy the donations. The afghan, she says, is perfect for Lu, whom she calls a wonderful lady.

"Then I have a lady that lives on her own, who is about 85 and loves to cook yet. So this way, with that crock pot she can come to the center and have her dinner ready when she gets home," says Rodeski.

Back at Mildred's apartment, Store-To-Door has just delivered her groceries. Mildred uses her $20 gift certificate towards her grocery order. As a result, she bought cat food for Gracie and other groceries for just 26 cents.

Mildred says knowing that someone cared enough to give her a gift is more important than the gift itself.

The Gifts for Seniors program serves the 10-county metro area. The group will accept donations until the end of the year. Poelzer says the program delivers some gifts to seniors who tend to get more depressed right after the holidays.