While Christmas is over a month away, a group of Nova Scotians are buying gifts for seniors who cannot afford to celebrate during the holidays.
Robyn Carruthers, founder of Santa’s for Seniors, says her gift to give started as a personal hobby in 2010, after her grandmother died in 2006.
“I used to love buying her presents at Christmas. I’d go to the mall and see something she would have loved but I had no one to buy it for,” says Carruthers.
In her spare time, Carruthers started calling local nursing homes asking if there were any seniors spending Christmas alone. Through Facebook, Carruthers’ holiday hobby has grown into an initiative supporting seniors throughout Halifax, Sackville, Bedford, Dartmouth and Spryfield.
This year Carruthers has more than 700 volunteers providing gifts and essentials to 400 seniors, a number she says is expected to rise as community groups receive last minute information from seniors in need.
Carruthers’ work starts months before Dec. 25. Every August, she contacts local senior aid groups, including Metro Housing, Victoria Order of Nurses, Chebucto Links and Northwood Beacon House.
Carruthers says without early preparation the seniors she supports are likely to go without help.
“A lot of the seniors don’t have phones, they have to stick notes under their doors. It’s a long process so it can take them a month to get me a list. Sometimes I’m not getting a list until Dec. 12, which only gives our volunteers a week to shop,” says Carruthers.
Carruthers understands how hard it can be to make ends meet as a senior.
“I had a woman reach out to me. Her husband has cancer and they haven’t exchanged gifts in two years because of financial reasons. Any time I get stressed or overwhelmed I read the lists and think, ‘I’m having a bad day but this person just wants a pot so they can cook their soup in.’ It’s all perspective,” she says.
While smaller items such as gas and grocery cards are a common request, Carruthers has seen volunteers come together to donate life-changing items.
Carruthers says near the end of October she posted a request from an anonymous senior who needed prescription eyeglasses. By the end of the day a handful of volunteers committed to pay more than $450 for a new pair.
In 2016, nearly 5.5 million seniors 65 and older were considered having a low income status, with 173,125 being Nova Scotian, according to Statistics Canada. Nearly 1.4 million of those seniors in Canada lived alone, while more than 500,000 spent 30 per cent or more of their household income on shelter costs.
‘It really hits home’
Arline Boyle has been a volunteer with Santa’s for Seniors for two years and continues to help because she knows how hard it can be to get by, particularly when you live on your own.
“My son lives in Toronto and I turn 60 this year,” Boyle says. “It really hits home.”
Boyle admires what Carruthers is doing because she is worried people aren’t caring as much about seniors as they used to.
“I wish people were just more aware of seniors. I grew up in a family of eight kids and we were always brought up to take care of seniors. Our kids’ generation are not doing that because they have to go away for work, they’re not connected with the families anymore,” says Boyle.
Jan Boswell, executive director of Chebucto Links, has been working with Santa’s for Seniors for three years.
Boswell says the gifts and handmade cards from children let the seniors know they are loved by their community.
As the Santa’s for Seniors initiative continues to grow, Carruthers plans on providing continued support to seniors struggling throughout the year.
“What about them a month after Christmas or three months after Christmas?” she says.
“We do reach out to the groups and tell them, ‘Any needs throughout the year reach out to us,’ and they have. This is really about keeping seniors in people’s minds.”
About the author
Travis is a freelance journalist and event photographer based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.