During the second winter of a pandemic that has increased isolation for many older people, a long-standing program that provides holiday gifts to seniors has taken on new significance.

As shoppers search for gifts for friends and family this holiday season, they can also buy a present for an elderly adult as part of the Be A Santa to a Senior program run by home care agency Home Instead and the Community Action Program for Merrimack and Belknap counties.

In December, delivery trucks bringing meals to about 300 homebound people will also play Santa Claus, bringing gifts purchased for each senior.

“Usually at the holidays we see a lot of Toys for Tots, toys for underprivileged kids, but often times older adults get forgotten in that mix,” said Caitlin Cawley, a home care consultant at Home Instead in Manchester. “Sometimes getting that one gift from the Be A Santa to a Senior program may be the only gift they’re going to get for the holidays.”

Much like initiatives that match poor kids with gifts, shoppers can choose an ornament with a senior’s first name and gift request from a Christmas tree at one of five locations, then drop an unwrapped gift back off at the tree with the ornament attached.

Gifts can be donated at John Whitaker Place at 30 Borough Road in Concord through Dec. 13. In Manchester, Chalifour’s and Coldwell Banker on Elm Street, State Farm on Kelley Street and St. George’s Greek Church on Hanover Street will also host trees.

The Community Action Program will gather the gifts together and hand them off to Meals on Wheels drivers for delivery to older homebound adults in Merrimack County.

CAP Community Service Coordinator Michelle Beaudin remembers a woman one year who was particularly thrilled by a pair of warm, fuzzy socks.

“A lot of them get so excited, it means a lot to them. A lot of them don’t have any family, the driver is the only one they see,” Beaudin said.

The 300 or so seniors in Merrimack County who are matched with gifts through the program get food delivered via Meals on Wheels. These are people who could go hungry without those meals either because of mobility challenges, dementia or being unable to drive.

“A lot of them can’t do public transportation, a lot of them can’t get on the bus,” Beaudin said. “Delivering those meals means a lot for them.”

The gifts can be simple, and warm items like hats, gloves, scarves or blankets are appreciated. Coffee mugs, non-perishable snacks, and baking kits are other cozy gift options for the winter, while puzzle books can keep recipients entertained and stimulate their brains.

Since the pandemic started, isolation has increased for many people, but older adults were !,geriatric%20physician%20Kathleen%20Rogers%2C%20MD.!hit especially hard by the loss of social connection. Seniors are already more likely to experience loneliness, which can have consequences for cognitive decline and other health problems.

“The older adults we reach regardless of COVID are homebound, usually fairly lonely,” Cawley said.

This is the 14th year that Home Instead has organized the program, and every year Cawley said the organization gets calls from grateful gift recipients.

The home care agency sends caregivers to older adults to provide companionship, do daily tasks like cooking and housekeeping and assist those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Due to recent labor shortages in rehabs, long-term care facilities and hospitals, Home Instead has been seeing more clients with more serious health needs requesting home services while they wait for a spot at a facility to open up.

“We collaborate with the community to make sure that they can be comfortable in their home as long as possible, if that’s what they would like to do,” Cawley said.

Cawley has worked at the home care agency for more than 6 years. She was drawn to this work because of the important relationships she has always had with older people. Growing up, she was close with her great-grandmother.

“Now, as I’m getting older, my grandmother’s a big part of my life,” Cawley said. “It’s just something I’ve always been passionate about, bringing awareness to healthy aging issues and what older adults need.”

In New Hampshire, the percentage of the population above 65 is growing, and older adults are estimated to make up more than one-third of the residents by 2030.

Be a Santa to a Senior is one way to make sure older adults aren’t forgotten during the holidays, Cawley said.

“Especially with the state of the world right now with COVID and everything going on still, people are run down and they’re tired. The holiday season is starting to lift them up a little bit more,” she said.