This is a tender-hearted time of year, and it is easy to reach into our wallets for the children of the poor, or the homeless and the hungry.
But there is another group that deserves our charity at Christmas, and it is the elderly, many of whom have out-lived those who might care for them at the holidays.
This is the season for "Be a Santa to a Senior," my new favorite cause.
Organized by Paul and Laurie Hogan, founders of Home Instead, which provides non-medical, in-home care for seniors, the program has collected more than a million gifts for more than 700,000 elderly in the country over the past eight years, including about 9,500 seniors in Maryland.
Just like the angel trees that dot malls and work places and carry the names of needy children, there are trees located in Walmart and Kmart stores in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties, and each is decorated with the names and the needs of seniors.
And these seniors ask for heart-breakingly little.
A sweater or a lap robe. Body wash. A tooth brush and toothpaste. A clock with large numbers. Someone might ask for a small holiday ham. Another asks for puzzle books. One gentleman asked for razors and shaving cream but added, "I really like cookies!" But most of the requests are utterly practical. "Safe" slippers, light bulbs or some cleaning supplies.
"Most of the requests are for gift cards for the grocery store," said Nancy Hoover of the Anne Arundel County's Department of Aging. Her caseworkers identify the elderly still living independently but who don't have family nearby. The volunteers for Meals on Wheels and Partners in Care keep a watchful eye on their clients at this time of year, too.
The elderly have other requests. Ones that aren't so easy for a stranger to fill.
"They will ask my caseworkers for a ride to take a grand-daughter out to lunch or to buy a gift for someone," said Ms. Hoover. "It is always for something they want to do for somebody else."
Pamela Urnowey, marketing director for Home Instead franchises in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, has requests from 600 seniors — 100 more than last year. But when we spoke, she'd collected only about a dozen gifts from beneath her angel trees, which have been in the stores since just after Thanksgiving weekend.
She is hoping more companies, like the accounting firm that adopted 60 seniors, will step forward. She looks to the Scouts for help, too.
"There is more need this year," she said. "And I thought we could take on 100 more. I am sure they could give me more names if I asked for them, but I don't want to let anybody down.
"What gets to me is that they don't ask for anything whimsical, like a child would," she said. "They just ask for things they need. Things the rest of us take for granted.
"I hope when people pick up a tag and they see the items listed that they buy something fun to put with it, something that will make that person smile or even laugh."
Later this month there will be work parties and volunteers will wrap all the gifts in holiday paper and tape the angel tags in place. The department of aging caseworkers will deliver them to their clients.
"It is wild," said Ms. Hoover, laughing. "You don't want to deliver the gifts too soon because it won't seem like Christmas. But it gets done. They have a wonderful job."
Last year, Be a Santa to a Senior was coming up seriously short until a news story appeared here in The Sun. Checks amounting to more than $4,000 arrived in Ms. Urnowey's office in the days that followed, and she was able to buy $50 and $100 gift cards for all the seniors who requested them.
You can be part of that last-minute push this year. If you don't have time to find an angel tree and purchase a gift before the Dec. 12 deadline, you can send a check — in any amount — to Ms. Urnowey. She will use her holiday magic to turn it into a gift card.
"I know that seems impersonal," she said. "But it is really what they need."
Nancy Hoover's holiday wish is that the people who take the time to pick an angel off a tree could make the last leg of this holiday journey.
"I wish they could go with the case managers. It would make your holiday. To see how something so little makes someone so happy."
Until Dec. 12, you can choose a senior's name and wish list from a tree at these locations:
Kmart, 1647 Crofton Center, Crofton
Kmart, 3255 Solomons Island Road, Edgewater
Walmart, 7081 Arundel Mills Court, Hanover
Walmart, 6205 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville
Donations may be mailed to Pamela Urnowey, Home Instead, 1511 Richie Highway, Suite 103, Arnold, MD 21012 or call 410-349-2320, ext. 119.
To see the reaction of seniors when their gifts arrive, visit beasantatoasenior.com.