Because I work with the geriatric population, many of my friends ask me what to give their relatives and friends who are in that age group. Many find it most difficult to buy for older adults in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. I must admit that I struggle with it from time to time myself, but these are some ideas and tips that I’ve found helpful. If you have a gift idea for a senior adult and would like to share it with other readers, be sure to leave a note in the comments section.
I think that one of the reason that I’ve always gotten along with this age group is that I’m a terrible judge of age. I have always had a very hard time guessing people’s ages, and most of the time when I’m talking to people I think to myself that I’m the same age as them. I was talking to someone at my dentist’s office today and said, “People our age”. When I really looked at her, I realized she was probably a good 10-15 years older than I am. Because I work with older adults, “old” doesn’t seem so old to me. I have a good friend at church who is 91, and he is as spry and chipper as people more than half his age. Age is what you make of it.
When I mention some of the tips and ideas below, please don’t think that I’m meaning to stereotype or fit anyone into a lump group. Some of the basic issues that affect older adults—change in range of motion and mobility, changes in eyesight and hearing, increased isolation, increased dependence on others for care and aid—are mentioned below in gift ideas. This doesn’t mean, however, that all older adults will indeed face these issues, and if they do will face them to the same extent as a counterpart of the same age. As with any gift, factor in what your loved one likes and enjoys. Make your gifts as individual to the receiver as possible.
Keep in mind space issues. Nursing home residents have very limited space in which to store their belongings. For that reason, pick things that are smaller or usable. While assisted living residents have a little more space than they do in nursing homes, storage is still an issue. Imagine storing all of your belongings in one room or one half of a room.
Ask about rules and regulations. Some nursing homes do not allow certain items in residents’ rooms. For instance, some places won’t allow residents to keep their hand sanitizer in their room (because it is alcohol based). Some places won’t let residents hang pictures on the walls; others do. Ask about what they do and don’t allow so that your gift doesn’t end up being put away.
Label it. If your loved one lives in a nursing home or assisted living, it is a good idea to clearly label anything that is his or hers.
If giving clothes, remember easy on, easy off. If you’ve ever seen a loved one’s hands who has advanced arthritis, you can imagine how difficult buttons or small zippers can be. If range of motion is an issue, it might be difficult to lift arms above the head to pull clothes on. Elastic waist bands, soft sweatshirts with large zipper pulls, stretchy materials, something with pockets—those are all good rules of thumb. Nightgowns and pjs are also good choices. Just make sure that the gown isn’t so long as to drag on the floor when walking.
Make it useful. Practical gifts aren’t always the most fun to give, but they can be the most appreciated. Here are some ideas:
- A grabber—This is a handy tool for just about any age group. Give one to our daughter and all of the sudden picking up her toys is a game. My grandmother stored one in her bedroom, one in the kitchen, and one near what we called her “nest”, the place she sat at most often. If your loved one has one already, another one might still be helpful. These usually go on sale at Walgreens for between $10-$20.
- Give them something to keep warm in the winter. Slipper socks, a quilt or throw blanket for the bed, a shawl, a sweater—anything that is durable enough to be washed often. Make sure any slippers or shoes that you give have good traction to help avoid falls.
- Most women who live in nursing homes and assisted living facilities very much enjoy the weekly trip to the beauty parlor. Medicaid and private insurance won’t pay for this. Call the social worker or office manager to ask about setting up a payment for a weekly service for your loved one. (ALWAYS leave a paper trail by paying with a check and requesting a receipt so that you know that the services were actually performed and the money went to good use. It is sad, but some people aren’t always trustworthy.) Until you’ve seen the difference that this makes in a person’s mood, outlook, pain level, and amount of hope, you’ll never fully appreciate what a great gift this is.
- Pedicures. Bend down and reach your toes. Now look at them very closely. Now imagine how you would trim your toenails if you could neither see them very well or reach them very well. Foot care is especially important for those with diabetes because of poor circulation and wounds being slow to heal. Pay for your friend or relative to go to a good salon or beauty parlor to have a pedicure. Since transportation is sometimes an issue, offer to make a day of it by bringing him or her to the pedicure and then having lunch afterwards. If they have diabetes, you might call around to find a podiatrist in the area that gives pedicures. Don’t let the word podiatrist fool you into thinking that the price will be unreasonable. Many offer this as a regular service, and it is sometimes even covered by insurance.
- Food gifts. If your loved one has a kitchenette or kitchen space, you might pick some goodies that are individually wrapped, won’t spoil easily, and don’t require much preparation. Be mindful of any diet restrictions when choosing. Some things to think about are choking hazards (ask if they are on a soft diet), dentures (some foods are harder to chew and enjoy with full dentures), diabetes (watch for the level of carbohydrates, not just sugar), sodium levels (foods that you might not think have high sodium, like soft drinks), and medications (some foods interact with medication absorption). If your loved one has been in a nursing home for any amount of time, he or she probably very much misses home cooking. Ask the dietician about bringing in a plate of hot food when you visit.
- Photos and plants. If there is a windowsill available, a framed family photo or an easy to care for houseplant can be a nice gesture.
- Large print books, word find puzzles, or crossword puzzles are nice for people on your list who enjoy staying busy. A magazine subscription might also be a nice choice if you know of one that the person likes.
Do something nice for the staff. One of my first recommendations to friends who are pregnant or going to the hospital for surgery is to bring some sort of treat to the nurses station and write in big letters, “Thank you for all you do! From [the person’s first and last name and room number]” By doing this you have made yourself or your loved one not just a room number. All of the sudden she is “the person who brought us donuts”. We bought some pizza for the nurses when I had surgery, and you would not believe how many of the staff came in to thank us and check on how I was doing.
The same tip is good for nursing homes. By doing something nice for the people who care for your loved one, you are also doing something for your loved one. I’m not saying it is right, but I’ve seen it too many times. I’ve worked in healthcare too long, and I’m not going to get on my soapbox about how everyone should receive the highest quality of care possible. The fact of the matter is most people give better care to people they like. People like feeling appreciated.
Last but certainly not least—the gift of time. Many older adults would much prefer having regular visits or calls than some gift you picked up or had shipped to them. I can’t tell you how many people I see each day who have no one but me and an occasional church group seeing them regularly. When my grandmother was living, even though she lived in her own home with family, she didn’t get outside of her home very often. It meant so much to her when we would call her, go to see her, and take her great grandchildren to see her. Most people remember to pay their loved one visits during the holidays but who makes a point to visit someone on January 11th (I just pulled that date right out of my ear)? I know it isn’t practical for everyone to visit all of the time, but do what you can for the people you love while you still can.
May you and yours have a very Merry Christmas!