I am frequently asked to name good gifts for elders at Christmas and other times of the year. Since most of us at this blog are old folks ourselves, you would think there are ready answers, but the questions still arrive.
A version of this post was published in 2006, and a lot of it still holds, but I've made some additions and changes.
When asked what they might want, elders frequently say, “Oh, don’t bother with me. I don’t need anything.” Pshaw. Everyone wants something. But with elders, you might need to do some investigative work.
One of the characteristics of many elders is a loss of interest in “stuff.” In fact, some spend a great deal of time in later years cleaning out a lifetime accumulation of clutter in their homes to simplify their lives. Others may have moved to smaller living quarters – apartments, retirement communities or assisted living facilities where there isn’t space for new acquisitions.
So it is important in choosing gifts for elders to find something that is useful, needed or won’t unnecessarily complicate their lives and most of all, is something they will enjoy. Unless an elder on your list is a passionate collector of, for example, ceramic frogs, tchotchkes are not good choices. They take up space and they’re just one more thing that needs dusting.
Also, consider that many elders are on fixed incomes. We are entering our second year without a cost-of-living increase to Social Security while inflation for goods and services elders spend more on than younger people continues. So gifts that might seem too ordinary and mundane for a holiday can fill an important hole in elders' lives.
Here are some ideas:
Eyesight sometimes dims with age. For readers, consider a large-print version of a book they would enjoy. Or a year’s subscription to the large-print edition, if there is one, of the local newspaper.
This year, I am also recommending a Kindle or other e-reader. Kindle seems to have the clearest and easiest-to-read text and Kindle editions are cheaper to buy than hardcover books. Also, there are thousands of classics available for free or as little as 99 cents in the Kindle store.
Movie buffs might like a year’s prepaid membership to Netflix. Or even better now that Netflix is streaming movies via television, you could equip an elder's set for this and give them a year's subscription. Or, if the old-fashioned way makes more sense, a small collection of DVDs starring a favorite actor or built around a theme or genre they like might be welcome. Or a dozen pre-paid tickets to the local movie theater.
If your budget allows, a Wii could be a fun gift. At a retirement community I visited not long ago, it was the most popular equipment in the common area and it has the advantage of getting people out of their chairs and moving around.
For a woman, a monthly prepaid visit at a salon for haircut and manicure. It’s good to include a pedicure too for elders who have trouble bending over to do it themselves.
Find out if your elder likes a particular kind of clothing that needs regular renewing. I have a fondness for a specific brand of flannel nightgown that can be hard to find. Two friends know this and starting long before I entered the realm of elderhood, have kept me supplied over the years.
Perfume and cologne fall into this category too. It doesn’t appear to be so common now, but people of my age (69) and older, often settled on a particular fragrance when they were young and have used it all their lives. The price of mine is now so high that I feel it is an unwarranted extravagance, so it is always a welcome gift.
If an elder you know has had to give up driving, consider a voucher for a local car or taxi service. Even better, if you have the time, make up a certificate promising a weekly or bi-weekly trip to the supermarket or a monthly ride to the local mall.
My great aunt Edith who lived to be nearly 90 told me how she, in her early 80s then, had scrubbed the kitchen floor one day and then couldn’t push herself up off her hands and knees. She laughed when I suggested to her that there is now this newfangled invention – a mop with a long pole attached – but she said they didn’t get the floor as clean as she wanted.
Thereafter, a cleaning service was hired. Elders often won’t admit they can no longer do common, everyday chores because they don’t want to be a burden to others. So you could promise a weekly cleaning or hire a biweekly service to come in – and maybe do the laundry too.
Fresh fruits and vegetables get more expensive every day. For low-income elders, a fruit-of-the-month club would be both fun to recceive and good for their health.
A word of caution about practical gifts: there are endless old jokes and cartoons about husbands giving their wives washing machines for their birthdays or anniversaries – practical, but hardly romantic or fun. An elder in your life may need or have trouble affording some safety equipment, incontinence supplies or a new cane, but it's better to help provide those needs during the year and find something for Christmas that will improve their lives and delight them.
A lifelong gardener who no longer has a yard might appreciate a Plant-of-the-Month membership or a kitchen herb garden. There is little upkeep and a continuous supply of nature’s color in the house.
If you're a blogger and have written stories about your childhood and your parents, you could print them out and make a book for a parent. If you're not a blogger or time is too short until Christmas, you could start such a project now for next year.
For cooks and bakers among the elders in your life, there are new, silicon pans, cookie sheets, muffin tins, etc. in stores that don’t need greasing and can be cleaned easily without scrubbing - more healthful and work-savers too.
For do-it-yourselfers, check to see if there are repairs needed around the elder's home and commit to getting them fixed as soon as possible.
If an elder in your life uses a computer and the internet, check to see if they might need a large-key keyboard. Such ailments as arthritis and the natural decline of feeling in fingers can make normal-sized keyboards difficult for some elders to use. You could also pay for a year’s broadband connection.
iPods and digital cameras are marketed so relentlessly to younger people that it is easy to forget elders can enjoy them too. A camera can give an elder a reason for a daily walk they might not otherwise take. You could give an iPod already filled with music you know your elder likes.
Unless your elders are sufficiently geeky on their own, be sure to make time soon after Christmas to help them learn how to use electronic gifts.
These ideas don’t begin to cover the possibilities, but I think they should give you a place to start thinking. And when giving such things as subscriptions to magazines, monthly flower clubs, a cleaning service, etc. that are only a piece of paper, be sure to include a token gift – a box of candy, a bottle of wine, a scented candle. Even after 65, 70 and more years, it’s still fun to tear open packages with the family.