Santa Claus’ “grandchildren” spread joy in Italian nursing homes

ALZANO LOMBARDO, Italy (AP) – Emotions are high this holiday season at the Martino Zanchi Foundation’s retirement home in northern Italy, near Bergamo, after months of almost complete isolation for its residents.

Longtime resident Celestina Comotti did not believe it when a staff member read aloud a Christmas greeting from a family who was watching her expectantly during a video call.

“Damn it!” Comotti exclaimed when the asylum team confirmed that his supporters – Simon, 9, his sister Marta and his mother Alessia – were people she had never met before. The 81-year-old woman started to cry.

“I’m shaking,” she said, adjusting her glasses.

Despite a gloomy year marked by death and loneliness, the Christmas spirit is falling on the nursing home Zanchi, one of the first in Italy to close its doors to visitors after a case of COVID-19 was confirmed at a nearby hospital on 23 of February.

The bearers of the good news were the so-called “Santa Claus grandchildren”, people who attended a charity call to spread joy to the elderly living in nursing homes, many of whom live far from their families or have no family members.

The program “Netos do Papai Noel” is in its third year. Last year, he combined 2,550 “grandchildren” with residents of 91 nursing homes. This year, 5,800 gifts were dispatched to 228 nursing homes across the country – a manifestation that is, in part, a reaction to the devastating number that coronavirus has caused in the elderly, comprising most of the 70,000 confirmed deaths of COVID-19 in Italy.

This was the first year of participation of the Zanchi nursing home in the program “Netos do Papai Noel”. The city of Alzano Lombardo, where the house is located, was one of the hardest hit in the province of Bergamo, where the first cases of coronavirus infection transmitted internally in Italy were discovered and triggered the deadly spring outbreak in the country.

Michela Valle, the house’s activities coordinator, said her goal was not so much to meet the wishes of elderly Italians for Christmas gifts, but to “bond”. The program combined benefactors with 43 Zanchi residents this season. Valle hopes that one day, when the pandemic will subside substantially, there may be personal meetings.

Recipients wore Santa hats during virtual visits with their volunteer grandchildren. They also received gifts to unwrap during the calls. Comotti’s foster family sent her a shawl, as she had requested.

“Blue, like your eyes,” said asylum director Maria Giulia Madaschi. Comotti laughed happily as the workers wrapped the shawl around her.

Tami “Mario” Palmiro was thrilled with his baseball cap named after the professional football team Atalanta Serie A from Bergamo, causing the 81-year-old to cheer on the stadium, before he too burst into tears.

Palmiro arrived at the asylum in August, undergoing a more painful transition than usual due to virus control procedures that strictly limit family visits, said Madaschi.

One of the “granddaughters”, Ilaria Sacco, said she signed up because she was unable to travel from California to Italy this Christmas and wanted to feel connected. Another, Caterina Damiano, explained that she lost both grandparents this year “but I still want to be a granddaughter”.

Madaschi said he was often moved to tears by the interactions, as “nipoti” and “nonni” found common ground. Many are already creating bonds, sometimes with real relatives, facilitating contact with the new “nipoti”.

“The guests were able to perceive the Christmas spirit, the joy of the holiday – being able to unwrap and give gifts, such a normal event in this anomalous period in which we live,” he said. “It has been a wonderful experience. To be repeated.”


Barry reported from Milan. Charlene Pele contributed from Alzano Lombardo and Alberto Pellaschiar contributed from Rome.


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