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Separated from loved ones and isolated within their own living quarters, many seniors are facing an excruciatingly lonely holiday season this year. It gives 'home for the holidays' a bitter new meaning.

COVID-19 has been hard on the senior population in our communities, especially those in senior living centers and assisted living facilities, and Idaho is no exception. The high contagion rate of the virus and its devastating death toll among the over-65 group has effectively necessitated the shuttering of those places where those most vulnerable live. In doing so, it has set them up for heartbreak. 

But thanks to some creative 'elves' working behind the scenes this holiday season, you can still reach out and make a big difference — and help ease the pain of a cloistered Christmas for seniors in our communities. You can write a letter, be a pen pal or make a window visit — and in doing so, lift someone's spirits, put a smile on their face, make a connection … and give them hope.

You can make a difference

In addition to senior center workers, The Idaho Commission on Aging has jumped into the mix, encouraging folks to write letters to residents of senior centers, nursing homes and and assisted living facilities in your community. You don't even have to know any of their names — letters can be written to “Any Resident” and will be distributed to those who receive little or no correspondence from relatives or friends.

Other suggestions from the commission include having your child draw and picture, or encouraging your church group, scouting troop or 4-H Club to write letters. One way to encourage others to join in is by sharing your efforts on social media with the hashtag #ICOAconnects.

"This may not seem like much, but to a lonely person, it would mean the world," according to the commission.

Make a safe connection in person

Although most centers have had virtual visitation with family since the beginning, many residents have not seen a face without a mask in months. That's where window visits can come in and provide an 'up close and personal' experience that can go a long way in giving solace, said Tiffeny Stees, a social worker at Orchards of Cascadia, a rehabilitation and nursing care center in Nampa.

"We have had a letter writing campaign before," she said. "But we would appreciate more window visits — from anybody. You can have phone-to-phone conversations. And we're hoping for window caroling. Or, if a family likes to sing, they don'd need to be Christmas carols." Other ideas include: "Pet window visits … anything for more interactive, safe experiences."

Stees said the staff at Orchards of Cascadia has done a lot of creative brainstorming. "We keep asking: 'What can we do to keep this interesting?'"

Other ideas for window visits include: dance groups, "square dancers out on the lawn — we could open the windows and let them see," Stees said.

A two-way street

In Stees' experience, the interactive piece is key, whether it is from a window visit or a pen pal program, which invites communication from both ends. Both are preferred to the more one-sided letter writing, she said, which is more like "just getting things thrown at them."

Other interactive ideas delve into donating tech devices.

"We're hoping for more community outreach in the area of donations of old Alexas or iPads to communicate or provide entertainment — or face-to-face Zoom meetings," Stees said.

Jeanne Huff is the community engagement editor for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at 208-465-8106 and follow her on Twitter @goodnewsgirl.

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