Bare feet and princess cake – SATO resident of the year 2023 is no ordinary granny

We had a special occasion just before Christmas: we were served coffee and cake in the beautiful home of Leena-Maija Aitamaa, SATO Resident of the Year 2023.

The doorbell rings at a light-filled one-bedroom home in the Kapellimestari block in Linnainmaa, Tampere. Waiting behind the door are Tuomas Laitinen and Leena Laksola from SATO and greeting them barefooted and wearing a flowery dress is Leena-Maija Aitamaa.

“One of my favourite things in my home is this lovely laminate flooring,” Leena-Maija says with a smile. The floors are a delight to those bare toes. “I’m very much an aesthetically oriented person, and beautiful surfaces, objects and furniture are important to me.”

Leena-Maija moved into her home building right after its construction was completed eight years ago, acting early enough to be able to pick the top-floor apartment that matched her specifications perfectly: “I’ve got a spacious bathroom, my own sauna, a large glassed-in balcony and views over a peaceful leafy area with detached houses.”

But let’s sit down at the beautifully laid out coffee table and chat about today’s main topic: Why is Leena-Maija SATO Resident of the Year 2023?

Loveliness awarded too rarely

“Leena-Maija is such a lovely and warm person,” says Service Manager Leena, with Tuomas, SATO Regional Director for the Tampere region, holding the framed award certificate and nodding in agreement. “At SATO, Leena is the person responsible for things to do with Leena-Maija’s home building and knows what she’s talking about,” Tuomas confirms.

“When we started thinking about this year’s SATO Resident of the Year, Leena-Maija’s name came up immediately. She creates a sense of security, joy and communality around herself – things that are more precious than gold in urban life.”

How is Leena-Maija’s loveliness reflected in the neighbourhood and all the way at SATO? “It was she who branded the local group of older ladies in the neighbourhood as the Granny Squad,” says Leena. “The publicity gained by the Granny Squad has brought light and joy to the lives of many people in Tampere and even nationwide.”

“Well, you see, you cannot but love those people,” says Leena-Maija with a smile and places a stunning red princess cake on the table. “The red colour is actually a big part of this story,” she continues.

Peace, warmth and wisdom of grannies

To recover from a persistent episode of moderate depression in spring 2022, Leena-Maija took up morning sauna sessions and Nordic walking: “I’d stop and chat with the grannies sitting on the benches outside the building when getting back from my walks.”

“I discovered that there were around a dozen grannies from the four buildings on the block and that, when their home buildings were completed, they’d bumped into each other in the shared courtyard, started chatting and became friends. At that point, some of the grannies had already known each other for six years,” Leena-Maija recalls.

SATOn vuoden asukas Leena-Maija vasemmalla kukkamekossaan kaataa kahvia kuppiin. Pöydän ääressä keskellä mieshenkilö, Tuomas, silmälaseissa ja oikealla nainen, Leena, mustassa asussaan. Pöydän yllä iso valkoinen valaisin ja takaseinällä keittiö ja värikäs seinäkello.
Sitting at the table at Leena-Maija’s place are Tuomas Laitinen and Leena Laksola.

Now retired but still observing the world with a keen journalistic eye, Leena-Maija soon figured out this would make an interesting story for a broader audience.

“I immediately became fond of these ladies. They were talkative, cheerful, open and always keen to hear how I was doing. I also noticed their peace, warmth and understanding that comes from their massive life experience.” 

And since almost all of them had red spring coats, Leena-Maija branded them in her mind as the Granny Squad. “I used to work in an advertising agency and a kind of productisation of phenomena is something that comes naturally to me even now that I’m no longer working,” Leena-Maija laughs.

And a catchy product name is always something welcomed by journalists looking for headlines, so the Granny Squad has featured in Aamulehti newspaper as well as national TV on Yle TV 1!

“I’m kind of an associate member in the squad,” Leena-Maija says. “They spend hours and hours together outside even in the winter, whereas I mainly just drop by to say hello. I’m a bit like that walrus that ended up in the Baltic Sea when I’m with them, as the next-youngest after me is seven years older than me.”

Strength from children and friendship

The cake and coffee are delicious. While Leena-Maija is admiring the orchid she was given, we are interested in hearing where her obvious loveliness stems from. What is Leena-Maija’s secret?

“I doubt I have any secret,” Leena-Maija replies. “I draw an awful lot of strength from my children, whose single parent I was for 17 years. My eldest turns 50 soon and my youngest, aged 25, is about to complete a degree in Communication Technology at Metropolia – which interestingly is the same University of Applied Sciences where my eldest has been teaching 3D animation and visualisation for more than 20 years.”

Leena-Maija organises a pancake party every Thursday for the family members who are able to join that week. Some of her seven children live further away, but all of them will certainly be there in early February when Leena-Maija celebrates her 70th birthday at Restaurant Näsinneula.

“In addition to my family, I get so much energy from my friends. The two closest ones have been with me for decades and the third is someone I got to know two summers ago in the cafe at Stockmann’s,” Leena-Maija continues and reminds us: “You can find new friends at any age. What’s important is to make a point of encountering the other person as your genuine self. The same applies to, for example, getting to know your new neighbours: Being genuine creates an instant connection!”

“What the Granny Squad does is that, whenever a moving van appears outside the building, the whole squad goes there to welcome the new resident or residents. If something similar doesn’t happen at your home building or if you’re a bit shy of contacting neighbours you don’t know, you can say something like ‘Hi, I’m Leena and I’ve just moved in and don’t know anyone yet. Do you happen to know how I could get to know some of the other people who live here?”

Host of hobbies and interests

It’s time to thank Leena-Maija for her good company and delicious treats and say goodbye. How is the Resident of the Year planning to spend her time from now on?

“Oh my, I intend to continue reading good books, keeping up to date with the news and enjoying classical music and the Hymns of Zion!” There will most likely also be a trip to Cyprus, a destination visited regularly by Leena-Maija, who is quite fluent in French and Greek.

“And hopefully my 70th is not the only big party this year,” Leena-Maija says with a smile and adds: “The Granny Squad is also very good at throwing a party. I’ve got fond memories of occasions such as the 90th birthday party organised in the courtyard for Elma by her daughters Helena and Tarja. We heard Elma’s memories about her having to flee her home in Karelia during the war as well as a song about Karelian evacuees performed by Toni Wirtanen and Jannika B.”

Making friends and loved ones happy and remembering them – could that be Leena-Maija’s secret?

The Resident of the Year thinks for a while and then says: “Giving is very selfish as it’s the giver themselves who always gets the greatest pleasure.”