MODESTO -- Christmas is supposed to be a joyous time of year. The Nativity scenes. The trees, lights and decorations. Food and companionship.
For patients in convalescent homes, though, Christmastime can be a reminder of how old age and failing health have changed the family traditions they enjoyed for decades when they lived in their homes.
There are patients who have no kin nearby or have outlasted their children. Worse yet, some have family members in the area, but they rarely visit.
"You'd be surprised," said Jason Visola, director of recreation at Evergreen Nursing & Rehabilitation Care Center in Modesto. "More (relatives) come at Christmas than normal, but not necessarily a lot."
Yet the spirit of Christmas lives in the hearts of the people who volunteer their time in these hospitals and facilities. Many volunteer year-round and some of them five or more days each week. Others, including church and school groups, visit during the holidays, and some individuals will drop in on Christmas just to make someone's day a bit better.
Directors at virtually every facility welcome volunteers and appreciate those who might drop in for even a few hours.
Janet Accardo has volunteered at Evergreen for 24 years and spends the last four months of each year prepping the resident choir to perform at the mall and at other convalescent homes.
John Berndt visits weekly, reading the Bible and spending time with residents, including Rosemary Villareal, a mother of five who has outlived four of her children all of whom volunteered at rest homes at some point in their lives. Her surviving daughter lives in Arizona and visits periodically, and Villareal will spend Christmas Day with an adopted son in Modesto.
Still, Villareal cherishes the time Berndt gives during his weekly visits.
"It means a lot, that a businessman is taking the time to come here," she said. "I love it here, but I need Christian fellowship. When I have difficulties, he has the answers. He makes people feel special. I miss him when he doesn't come."
The visitors and volunteers work wonders for patients such as Frances Prusso, a birthday girl who turns 96 today.
She came to Evergreen two years ago. Her daughter, Carol Dutra, was a patient there, as well, while recovering from back surgery. Dutra was able to go home, and she visits when her back allows. Life in the hospital saddened Prusso until volunteer Gladys Green Rodriguez herself a former patient there began visiting her. Piloting her wheelchair to the Kmart in Ceres, Rodriguez boards a Dial-a-Ride bus for a lift into Modesto.
She befriended Prusso, motivating her to get out of bed and participate in activities again. She convinced Prusso to join the church choir, and particularly loves the hymns and Christmas carols.
"I'm amazed what those old people can do," Prusso said. "They know those songs."
Louis Adams began volunteering six years ago when his mother was an Evergreen patient, and he continued after her passing. He visits at least five days a week, pushing the patients in their wheelchairs, taking them into the courtyards or to their activities.
"Sometimes, I come Saturdays and help with the bingo," he said.
They became his support system after his mother died.
"He's adopted the patients and they've adopted him," Visola said. "He's their taxi."
When an aneurysm claimed Iris Edwards at 57 over the summer, the patients lost a dear friend and dedicated volunteer. With no kin of her own, they had become her family. Her passing left patient Gloria Goure mourning.
"She was a wonderful person the best I'll ever meet and a friend to everyone," Goure said. "She never met a stranger. She'd do anything for you. She was like my sister and was as close to me as my sister."
Edwards continued to visit right up until the day she died, spending more than $8,000 over the years on transportation and on items some of the patients wanted or needed.
They held a memorial service for her at the convalescent home. Patient Kushma Kumar, who cannot speak, wrote the eulogy by tapping it out, one letter at a time, on a communication board. It took her more than two hours to finish.
It was Kumar's way of saying "thank you" to someone who had given so much to the patients at Evergreen.
They could use more like Edwards and the others who give their time and talents, whether as regular volunteers or those who drop in to brighten someone's day during the holidays.
So could all of the area's other convalescent hospitals.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.