Last year, residents sat out holidays at Michigan senior living home. Not this year.

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Hazel Park — When you live through 96 holiday seasons, like Lucile Ruonavaara has, you get to boast about some variety in your traditions. 

In 1932, for example, Ruonavaara’s family moved and her mother said she and her three siblings might not get presents because Santa would not be able to find their new home. The 7-year-old decided something had to be done to make sure the jolly man showed up. 

While her mother went to the store to buy a loaf of bread, little Lucy set off by herself to the old J.L Hudson Department Store on Woodward and explained to Santa why her family’s new ZIP code should not stop them from receiving some holiday cheer. 

Linda Ruonavaara, 69, of Royal Oak, left,  helps her mother Lucile Ruonavaara, 96, with her Thanksgiving meal in her apartment at Baldwin House Senior Living in Hazel Park.

The day after her expedition, the Detroit Goodfellows showed up at their house with food and presents for Ruonavaara's family. 

This week, Ruonavaara prepared for another family holiday, this time at Baldwin House Senior Living in Hazel Park, where she has lived for six years. Others there were making plans for visits to family homes on Christmas Day. For those who stay at Baldwin House, the center will host a party for residents Saturday and allow their families to visit them in their rooms while still abiding by COVID protocols.

For years before the COVID-19 pandemic, the home would host a Thanksgiving meal and raucous Christmas bash with food, drinks and live entertainment for the 95 residents and their families, said Tina Marzolf, co-owner and chief executive officer at Baldwin House.

Last year, their holiday plans fell apart and celebrations were canceled as case counts and hospitalizations mounted, and the home would remain closed off to visitors for months after the holidays and well into the spring. 

"It’s hard to feel like it’s a holiday when you don’t have the joy of bringing your family together," said Marzolf.  

When Jillian Tisch joined the home as its new executive director less than a year ago, the hallways were empty, the furniture had been removed from the common areas to discourage gatherings, and none of the snowy decorations that now adorned the lobby and the main staircase were there. 

"It just felt very lonely for our residents," said Tisch. "I don’t like to see people lonely." 

On Thursday, it looked like a different place.

Just after a mimosa breakfast and a couple of hours before the return of the facility’s highly anticipated Christmas party, about half a dozen residents sat together in the TV room, playing Wheel of Fortune on a Nintendo Wii.

A resident thought he had figured out the clue and yelled, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do!" 

An employee plugged in the letters. The resident was correct. His competitors groaned. 

"He always gets them so quickly!" said Barbara Walker, 76. 

Walker was a custodian for Hazel Park schools for 22 years before she retired in 2007. She has been at Baldwin House for about three years, and on Thursday was decked out in a tiara, a pair of gift-box earrings and a sweater that read "Merry Litmas." 

For her, Christmas will take place at the house of her son, Brett, in Troy. Walker, who goes by "Grammy" and raised her two sons as a single mother, is not allowed to lift a finger. After dinner, she will try to defy orders. 

"If they are busy talking, I would sneak in the kitchen and start washing dishes," she said. "And (Brett) would come in and say, 'Get out of here! … You did it all before, you can’t do it now.'"

The pandemic brought with it fear and sadness for Walker. She was able to see her family and felt safe with them, but COVID-19 took many of her friends — some passed away from the disease and others moved in with their families for fear of it. 

Walker is happy the Christmas festivities are returning, but perhaps more exciting is the prospect of a Valentine’s Day party in February. The tiara Walker wears was bestowed upon her when she was elected Valentine’s Day Queen in 2020, a few months after she moved into the home.

There was no party in 2021 and her reign was automatically extended. But heavy is the head that wears the crown, and Walker is eager to pass the baton to a new queen in 2022. 

Barbara Walker holds up a Santa hat with a tiara that her son delivered to her to commemorate her crowning as Valentine's Day Queen at Baldwin House in 2020.

Diane Hamilton, 72, moved into Baldwin House two years before Walker did. She used to host lavish Thanksgiving and Christmas parties at her house and take a day off work to prepare a meal for 15 people every year. 

Last Christmas, the former computer programmer took a nap. 

"Honestly, it wasn’t that memorable," said Hamilton. "I knit all that time, so I would’ve worked on that or worked on catching up on my DVR." 

One of Hamilton’s two daughters lives in Troy with her husband and three children. The family is close, and Hamilton loves to chat with her grandkids and play cards with her daughter and son-in-law, but the daughter is a teacher and had to take serious pandemic precautions. 

"Nobody was over till you were shot up and masked up, which I appreciate," said Hamilton. 

Now that they have all received their vaccines and boosters, the only hurdle to celebrating the holidays with her family was transporting Hamilton’s wheelchair. 

A back surgery five years ago left her paralyzed and she was told early on that the bus service she uses doesn’t run on the holidays. The cost of private services was too much for her — she said it would have cost $100 each way to get to her daughter’s house in Troy. 

She found out, however, that her regular bus runs just before and just after holidays. So her family celebrated Thanksgiving on the following Friday, and she realized that for $6, roundtrip, she could celebrate at her daughter's house on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. 

Before Baldwin, Hamilton used to host a big New Year's Eve party at her house as long as guests promised to give her their keys and spend the night if they were drinking.

Things are more sedate these days.

"I might make myself a little tray of something," said Hamilton. "Maybe a cup of cocktail shrimp, a glass of wine. And if I get through that, that’s okay.”