By Terri Darr McLean

What do a University of Kentucky ball cap, cotton candy, an Elvis t-shirt and costume jewelry have in common?

The Sharp Family, they donated blankets embroidered with resident’s names.

The Sharp Family, they donated blankets embroidered with resident’s names.

The Sharp Family, they donated blankets embroidered with resident’s names.

They are items on the wish lists of participants in the Silver Bells program, a statewide Christmas gift-giving program for long-term care residents who themselves have something in common: They have no one to visit them and, otherwise, would not receive a gift at all.

Such items, though far from extravagant, are also the exception rather than the rule. Most Silver Bell participants ask for the simplest of things – a bottle of “nice-smelling” shampoo, bath soap, a can of shaving cream or a pair of white crew socks. Word search puzzles and DVDs might pop up occasionally. One elderly gentleman asked for little more than a country ham sandwich.

“The things on a Silver Bell’s wish list are things we often take for granted,” said Sherry Culp, the Kentucky long-term care ombudsman. “We consistently get requests for things like, sweatpants, blankets or throws, cardigans, chocolates, things to write with, stamps. We’ve had people ask for rolls of quarters so they can buy things out of the vending machines.”

Variations of the Silver Bells program are offered in all 15 of Kentucky’s Area Development Districts. In the Bluegrass Area Development District, the Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass coordinates the program, and its 30 ombudsmen identify those who qualify throughout their 17-county region – about 300 out of 5,000 long-term care residents, Culp said.

The program operates much like an angel tree for children. After area ombudsmen identify participants, those participants fill out a wish list of items they need – and sometimes a few that they want.

People in the community, including entire offices, church groups and corporations, then step up to fulfill those wishes. It’s a simple act of giving that has a huge impact, said Crystal Bader, executive director of the Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass.

“This year, we had a gentleman whose list was made up of personal care needs – lotion, shampoo, shaving cream, things like that. But at the very bottom of his list was a telescope. And one very kind woman … she and her husband spent the weekend searching for a telescope and found one. So he is going to get that wish granted,” Bader said.

While nursing homes and other long-term care facilities provide a resident’s basic needs, they are often just that – basic. “I’d be hard-pressed to use that institutional bath soap,” Culp noted.

And when you consider that a majority of residents are impoverished, there are few who can afford to buy nicer things for themselves, she said.

“If you have money in the first place, and if you’re paying $210 a day private pay to be in a nursing home, you’re going to burn through your money. Then you end up on Medicaid after you’ve spent all your money. When you’re on Medicaid, you’re only allowed to keep $30 to $40 of monthly income and everything else has to go to the nursing home to pay your bill. By the time you pay for cable or a cell phone, that doesn’t leave much for personal needs,” Culp explained.

The Silver Bells program attempts to fill the gap.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t have anybody or anything, and that’s really who the program focuses on,” Culp said.

Even the most frail long-term care residents are considered for the program, Bader said.

“I think putting a warm pair of socks on someone who is bedridden or who may not understand it’s the holidays – I still think that’s participation,” she said.

The gifts – packaged in colorful holiday bags – are delivered to Silver Bell residents by Christmas Eve. The long-term care facilities often plan a party or other event to add additional cheer.

“Much of the time it’s difficult to see the impact we’re making, but when you hand somebody a gift and see a smile on their face, we can see the impact. And that’s the rewarding part,” Culp said.

Although this year’s Silver Bells program is wrapping up, both Culp and Bader said it’s not too late to make a difference in the life of a long-term care resident. The Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass always accepts monetary donations, as well as coordinates volunteers to regularly visit residents.

For more information, call 859-277-9215 toll-free 877-787-0077. Or visit www.ombuddy.org.