Seniors embrace new traditions

December is a whirl of activity at assisted-living facilities as staff try to establish new ways to mark holidays

On a Thursday evening in mid-December, holiday spirits are running high at Sunrise of Norwood, an assisted-living facility in suburban Boston. Eighty people – residents, relatives, and friends – have gathered for a special event, the annual family Christmas party.

As carolers fill the room with choruses of "Noel, noel," and as staff members offer trays of hors d'oeuvres and cider, one of the youngest guests, 17-month-old Faye Stearns, snuggles in the lap of her grandfather, Fred Stearns, bringing a smile to his face. Her parents and two brothers share in the festivities.

"It gives Grampy a chance to see all the family in his home," says Mr. Stearns's son, Dana Stearns, of Walpole, Mass. "This is his home now, and the staff are his extended family."

Family parties like this one are becoming a favorite December tradition in assisted-living and independent-living facilities across the country. Conversation hums, laughter flows, and cameras click as families – sometimes three and four generations – smile and say "cheese."

"Families and friends love it, and the children love it," says Eric Saulnier, activities coordinator at Sunrise of Norwood. "It really lights up the residents' day. For those who don't have a family, we go out of our way to involve them so they don't become isolated."

December is the busiest month for residents of senior-living communities. As staff members plan a whirlwind of holiday activities, they hope to establish new holiday traditions to replace the ones residents left behind when they gave up their homes. In addition to family parties, calendars fill with concerts, religious services, decorating contests, and carols, carols, carols.

Nearly 1 million seniors live in 36,500 assisted-living communities across the country, according to the Assisted Living Federation of America in Washington, D.C. Conservatively, the group expects this housing to increase by 2.5 to 3 percent a year in the near future. Growth will increase as baby boomers age, says spokesman Paul Williams.

Demographics at Sunrise of Norwood tell part of the story. Nearly 20 percent of the 81 residents are men, a figure that has been increasing. There are two married couples. The rest are widows, except for a few single women. The median age is 84.

Whatever the makeup of each facility, staff members find that emotions can be mixed during the holiday season. "The majority of residents are happy that they're not in their home by themselves at this time of year," says Robert Lucarelli, communications manager at Judson at University Circle, a continuing-care retirement community in Cleveland. "They have the opportunity to enjoy camaraderie with others."

For others, the season brings challenges. "It's a hard time," says Dawn Mason, recreation director of Cambridge Brightfield Assisted Living in Lansdale, Pa. "They're missing their families, missing their home, missing traditions they don't have anymore."

To keep spirits bright, Ms. Mason plans a variety of activities. The biggest is a dressy dinner party for residents and families.

Relatives, friends, and staff donate fancy clothes. "Hair gets done and nails get done," Mason says. "If they can't afford the hairdresser, staff members do their hair. Men get a shave and a haircut."

Some activities offer a chance to be creative. Mason, for example, hosts a holiday card-writing party. At Summerville at Lakeview in Columbus, Ohio, residents participate in a door-decorating contest and help to make centerpieces.

"We try to make it as upbeat as possible," says Terri Christensen, activities assistant. "A lot of residents don't have a lot of family left. Sometimes they feel forgotten."

Yet those who are alone can find comfort in group settings. "For residents who don't have family at this stage of their life, the other residents become their family," says Bernie Cavis, a national director for Brookdale Senior Living in Milwaukee.

Holiday activities also provide intergenerational connections. Children in school groups and Scout troops often visit senior-living facilities this time of year. "I get the community very interested in assisted living," says Linda Pacifico, activities director at Summerville at Hillsborough, N.J. "If it's not Girl Scouts, it's Boy Scouts. If it's not a church group, it's a temple." Girl Scouts made a gingerbread house with residents. And last Sunday a full choir of temple members performed.

Even nursery schools get involved in singing seasonal songs. "Residents love the children coming in," says Ms. Pacifico. "The other day a lot of residents were sitting around the tree with little children, who were taking decorations off and putting them back on. They were putting their special touch on the tree."

At some facilities, the holidays offer a chance to reach out to others. About three-quarters of residents of Judson at University Circle live independently, and many remain involved with charities during the holidays, Mr. Lucarelli says. One group knits caps and mittens for needy children. They display their handiwork on a small tree and sell it to benefit nonprofit agencies in northeast Ohio.

Residents of Carolina House in Smithfield, N.C., collected phone cards for soldiers to use when they call home. Before the 82nd Army Airborne All American Chorus left on Monday for Iraq, they celebrated with residents.

Helping soldiers is also a December priority at Sunrise at Brick in Brick, N.J., home to many veterans. "We've been sending out four or five packages a week to soldiers in Iraq," says Judy Rivera, activities director. Family members and staff filled stockings with drink mixes, lip balm, candy canes, beef jerky, gum. Residents made cards and wrote letters.

One veteran, Anthony Zoppi, says, "I try to encourage them in my letters, and tell them that America's a great country. I'm very grateful for what we're doing here. It means a lot for the soldiers. They need all the support they can get."

Some residents plan events. Madelon Hanson, who lives at Wyndemere Senior Living Campus in Wheaton, Ill., organizes a holiday lights tour. A bus filled with 28 residents cruises the area to view decorations. When Wyndemere held its first tree-lighting event this year, a residents' handbell choir provided music. At Carolina House of Smithfield, a resident choir will perform for families and the community.

On Christmas Eve, residents at Summerville at Hillsborough gather around a fireplace for an eggnog social and a reading of "The Night Before Christmas." Then, says Pacifico, "Everybody talks about what they did on holidays when they were growing up. They love to talk about that."

At Sunrise of Norwood, Cassidy Randall, a fifth-grader, is one of 13 members of her extended family attending the party with her great-grandmother, Mary McDermott. As the festivities end, she says, "A lot of people don't have great-grandmothers, so I feel lucky to have one. I really like coming here because I love spending time with my family."

There comes a point when December calendars reach their limit. "Right now I'm getting tons of calls from Brownies, Girls Scouts, and other groups wanting to sing Jingle Bells," Mason says. "I ask, 'Would you be willing to come in January and sing winter songs, like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Winter Wonderland"?' "

As the recipient of similar seasonal abundance, Ms. Christensen offers this advice: "It's lovely that you want to come in December for the holidays. Everyone is in the gift-giving spirit. But it's also important to remember these people throughout the year. Try to spread your visits and the sharing of your time and your talents through the year."

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