Gift drive for Pilsen seniors aims to alleviate isolation

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Unlike most days, 84-year-old Cruz Mendoza woke up bright and early on Dec. 18 to iron his plaid shirt and polish his sombrero and shoes to wear to the Christmas luncheon in the lobby of his senior housing facility, Casa Maravilla in Pilsen.

He spends most weekends alone and that is something he is used to, he said. But on holidays, the solitude — with which he has made peace — turns into loneliness and nostalgia for the days when he was surrounded by hugs and laughs from his family.

“This makes me feel loved,” Mendoza said in Spanish as he walked out carrying a blue bag full of presents from a community gift drive. It is the first time he has gotten presents in decades, he said smiling.

When the pandemic hit, Cristina Puzio realized that it was not just COVID-19 that was killing older adults, it was also loneliness and depression, she said. So for Christmas 2020, she invited community members to donate gifts for seniors in Pilsen as a way to brighten their holiday. It’s now a tradition that more than 200 older adults in senior housing receive gifts and spend an afternoon with each other and community members, listening to Christmas melodies and eating a traditional meal.

For Mendoza, who has lived alone at Casa Maravilla for nearly 12 years, the event was special. “May God bless them all so that we can spend more time like this together,” he said.

Girl Scout Jocelyn Vanzant, 12, gives a gift bag to Herbert Vasquez, 63, during a gift give-away at the Pilsen Satellite Senior Center.

More than 50% of the residents at the facility live alone and most of them tend to spend holidays by themselves, said Ricardo Enriquez, director at the senior center. Casa Maravilla is a facility for low-income seniors in the neighborhood directed by The Resurrection Project, a local, nonprofit community development corporation.

To see the seniors smiling is refreshing. “Things like this remind them that they’re not truly all alone and motivates them to keep going,” Enriquez said.

Though many of them have families, few visit the seniors throughout the year. For many, the gift they get from the community is the only present they will get for the holidays.

According to a recent study, many older adults are socially isolated or lonely — or both — in ways that put their health at risk. Nearly a quarter of Americans age 65 and older who live in community settings are socially isolated, meaning they have few social relationships or infrequent social contact.

Though it’s hard to measure precisely, strong evidence suggests that, for older adults, social isolation and loneliness are associated with an increased likelihood of early death, dementia, heart disease and more, according to the 2020 report by the AARP Foundation and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Maria Teresa Llanito, 77, has experienced that loneliness since her partner of more than 40 years died three years ago.

“Christmas made me feel happy, but since my husband died, I haven’t been able to assimilate,” she said as she ate a tamal. “I think about him every moment of every day.”

The luncheon, though, helps her to “forget about the pain for a little while.”

Girl Scouts Irene Vasquez, 12, left, and Jocelyn Vanzant, 12, put pamphlets in blue bags during a gift giveaway at the Pilsen Satellite Senior Center at Casa Maravilla on Dec. 18, 2022.

She sat next to her friend Cirila Mosso, 67, who opened her gift little by little. There were socks, snow globes, a pack of tortillas and even ornaments to decorate their tree. The women smiled and rocked to a melody on their chair. For the moment, Mosso forgot why she doesn’t like the holidays: Her mother passed away in Mexico and she never got to see her again.

“That’s the sadness that invades my life,” Mosso said in Spanish.

On Thanksgiving, Christmas and Mother’s Day, her heart shrinks a little more. “I’m reminded of her when I see other people with their families,” Mosso said. She has lived at the facility for five years. She’s spent some Christmas days at local churches and other times, on Christmas Eve, she gathered with other seniors in her building to eat dinner.

Through the gift drive, Puzio, an energy healing practitioner in the neighborhood, wants to help the seniors know they are loved and appreciated, and to encourage them to create a family with those around them.

Now, with support from the Pilsen Satellite Senior Center at Casa Maravilla, the Association of Latin American Students, El Paseo Community Garden and the Girls Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, Puzio hopes that the efforts are expanded and mirrored in other nursing homes, rehab centers and even individual families through the Chicago area.

The organizations fill the gift bags with items donated by community members. But beyond donations of money or material objects, the best gift for seniors is time, thoughtfulness and giving them some company, Puzio said.

During the holidays, attention is mostly geared toward children and many organizations hold toy drives, but older adults are often forgotten, Puzio said.

Ananias Flores, 78, smiles as he receives a gift bag at the Pilsen Satellite Senior Center at Casa Maravilla on Dec. 18, 2022, in Chicago.

The pandemic helped turn some of the attention to the vulnerability of seniors, she said. “We often assume that seniors have family, but the reality is that many of them don’t, or they only have chosen family,” Puzio said. Many Latino older adults are also low-income, and some are undocumented. For those reasons, even fewer can afford to properly celebrate the holiday.

Many seniors cry when they get their gift, Puzio said. “They get emotional and they are surprised that we care, that we are doing this,” she said.

Puzio said she hopes that other individuals and organizations realize the importance of bringing attention and resources to seniors who live alone. It might just save their life, she said.

“Spiritually, people want to connect, feel seen, feel heard,” Puzio said. “Like they are a part of a family or that they have someone who can be there for them.”

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