Delight your senior loved ones with ingenuity instead of more stuff.
By Mary Jacobs
Originally published in the Dallas Morning News on Nov 21, 2019
As an organizer who assists seniors, Karen Peterson has sorted through many well-intentioned and never-used gifts: slippers and sweaters still in their gift boxes, jewelry with the price tags still attached, framed pictures and decorative items stowed in a closet for lack of shelf space.
All of which point to a dilemma many of us face every holiday season: What to buy for an older loved one who already has too much stuff?
“By the time someone reaches the age of 70 or 80, they have accumulated a whole closet full of clothes and their shelves and walls are already full of pictures and doodads,” says Peterson, co-founder of Simplify and Stay, a North Dallas service specializing in seniors who are downsizing or moving. “Many of the gifts they receive just don’t get any use.”
What to do? For alternative gift ideas, we consulted staff members at the Senior Source as well as a few seniors themselves. Consider these for the elder in your life who has everything.
Food that gets eaten doesn’t take up space. Stock up the senior’s pantry with favorite food items for the holidays and beyond: fine chocolates, cookies, gourmet cheese, a fruit basket or fruit-of-the-month club membership. Be sure to keep the recipient’s dietary restrictions in mind.
A fresh set of high-quality bed linens is a luxury that some seniors won’t buy for themselves. Peterson says she’s surprised at how many clients in otherwise well-appointed homes and apartments have shabby old sheets.
Tickets, tickets, tickets
Movie passes, concert tickets and tickets or memberships to museums or gardens are just a few possibilities. Tag along or provide transportation if the older adult no longer drives.
Invite your parent or loved one to create a list of tasks around the house and handle them over the holidays. “Although she is still able to cook, clean and mow her yard, my mom especially likes it when we help with ‘overhead’ things like tree trimming, changing light bulbs and changing batteries in the smoke detector,” says Deborah Burkham, financial coach at the Senior Source’s Elder Financial Safety Center. “The added value is she gets to spend time with us.”
Many seniors can benefit from a variety of gadgets — a smartphone, laptop, e-reader, life alert button — but need a little help to get started. If you’re tech-savvy, offer to set up and tutor your loved one on a newly acquired gadget. Rig together shortcuts to make a device more user-friendly.
When the numerous buttons on the TV remote confounded her mother, Peterson cut out a cardboard cover that left only three vital buttons exposed — the on/off, the channel selector and the volume control — and covered the ones her mom never used. Problem solved.
Other tech tasks you might tackle as a holiday gift:
· Help set up autopay for utility bills.
· Assist in setting up regular delivery of prescription medications.
· Organize and digitize the senior’s photo collection.
· Create a cheat sheet — in big letters — for a digital thermostat or other device.
Books that take no space
Give an e-book or a gift card to an avid reader. For an older adult with limited vision, consider an audiobook or a membership to an audiobook service like Audible.com.
They’re not glamorous, but Peterson says that many older adults, especially those who live alone or have limited mobility, may appreciate practical items that help them stay more independent. Examples include a small, lightweight flashlight (with fresh batteries), a lightweight step stool with a handle, a raised toilet seat, a good pair of comfortable walking shoes, a wheeled grocery cart (especially helpful for those who live in apartments who may need to carry groceries a good distance from the car). For an inexpensive stocking stuffer, Peterson suggests a back scratcher — because whose back doesn’t itch now and then? For more practical ideas, check out websites that cater to seniors.
Find a new favorite
Organize an outing that creates a new experience for the senior. “If they like Del Frisco’s, take them to Maple Motor for a burger,” says Carmen Emery, a retired teacher. “If they love Prego’s, introduce them to a pizza at Louie’s. If they love the Kimbell or Dallas Museum of Art, take them to the Latino Cultural Center.” Or treat your senior loved one to a meal out that doubles as an adventure, such as afternoon tea at the Adolphus or the Dallas Arboretum.
The gift of travel
For a senior who’s retired or lives alone, a family trip can turn into the highlight of the year. Enlist other family members and plan an adventure, keeping in mind any limitations the senior might have. If your elder loved one lives far away, an airline ticket for a visit to your city is a great gift. (Request wheelchair assistance in advance if getting to and from the gate poses a challenge.) For seniors who are still up to travel by themselves, consider purchasing an airline ticket, an airline gift card or giving them airline miles.
Gift cards for a manicure, pedicure, spa or hair care services or for a favorite restaurant or shopping destination are often welcome.
Pay it forward
Does your loved one have a favorite charity? Consider making a donation to that cause in your senior’s name. Many organizations offer ways to make a gift tangible. For example, for $75 you can purchase a brick for Fair Park’s Texas Promenade Walkway (fairpark.org) and inscribe it with your loved one’s name. Or consider charities such as DonorsChoose.org, through which donors direct donations to teachers for specific needs, or LendwithCare.org, which lets you lend small amounts to entrepreneurs in developing nations and follow their progress.
The gift of nostalgia
Many seniors love looking back on earlier times. For those with dementia, reminiscing can serve as a lifeline.
· Revisit favorite TV programs, movies or film from earlier times. Bring your iPad and spend an afternoon watching old favorites on YouTube with your loved one.
· Browse the Vermont Country Store online together or visit a place that specializes in old favorites like a Cracker Barrel or Ben Franklin. Look for favorite brands of candy, soap or cosmetics that are no longer sold in supermarkets.
Family photos rank among everyone’s most treasured possessions. A few creative gift ideas:
· A digital photo frame, such as NixPlay, which you can update remotely with new photos. Set it up during a visit, then email photos directly to the frame.
· Photo restoration services for a favorite vintage family photo that’s faded, damaged or falling apart.
· A customized photo calendar filled with family pics, especially for a senior who still prefers to rely on a paper calendar for appointments and reminders.
· Photo gifts, such as a mug, bracelet, locket or other item made with a favorite photo of the grandkids or the family.
· A family photo album or photo book, assembling favorite photos in one place.
· Framing services for a favorite photo that the senior would like to display.
· A multigenerational family portrait taken by a professional photographer.
Pick up a payment
Take over a monthly bill that the older adult already pays, such as the cellphone, cable and/or internet bill, or the monthly fee for a life alert device. If there are several adult children in the family, you might split the bill or take turns paying it. This ensures you’re giving something that’s needed as well as freeing up cash for other wants.
Many older adults enjoy genealogy. An annual paid subscription to an online service such as Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com or FamilyTree.com can provide hours of entertainment. Ditto for subscriptions to magazines or newspapers.
Seniors at the Golden Age senior center on in Arlington play a game together.
Seniors at the Golden Age senior center on in Arlington play a game together.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)
The gift of time
“We hear from many older adults who don’t want to ‘bother’ their children because their children have their own lives and problems,” says Burkham of the Senior Source. “If families would make an effort to regularly call, visit or include the older adult in their lives, this would be the best gift of all.”
Lynda Ender, director of the Advocacy Group for Elders program at the Senior Source, offered this list of concrete ways for giving the gift of time:
· Plant flowers in their flower beds so they can enjoy the blooms.
· Take a drive to see Christmas lights or to an area of town that has changed a lot or to a nearby area where the senior once lived.
· Take flowers to the cemetery.
· Take the senior to visit an old friend or relative.
· If your senior follows a sports team on TV, go together to a game.
· Take the older adult to do something they’ve always wanted to do. “My mother attended her first opera in her 80s,” Ender says.
Other ideas: Sign up for a craft class such as painted pottery, stained glass or cookie or cake decorating that you can try together. Prepare a favorite food that your loved one doesn’t get to enjoy often. Find something you’d both like and go do it.
“I ask my kids to take me to a movie, a museum, breakfast or whatever,” says Jerry McCombs, a retired Realtor. “I would rather have the time together than a physical gift I don’t need.”
Mary Jacobs is a Plano freelance writer.