[EDITORIAL NOTE: Supposedly it is conventional wisdom that it is hard to shop for old people. Not true. Not true at all, as the extraordinary length of this annual elders' gift guide shows.
Below are repeats from previous years incorporating reader suggestions that have accumulated here over time. I'm sure you'll find useful ideas and I look forward to your newest suggestions in the comments.]
When I was a kid, my mother and her friends made jokes – unfunny, rueful jokes – about getting a vacuum cleaner as a birthday gift or a washing machine for Christmas from their husbands. (I'm pretty sure there have been numerous New Yorker cartoons on the subject over the years.)
In the late 1940s and 1950s, those were extravagant purchases for young couples and would certainly be a help for women who did virtually all the housework in those days.
But even though I was a little kid eavesdropping on the grownup ladies, it was easy to know that they would rather have a bottle of perfume, a silk blouse or a pair of pretty earrings.
In past holiday gift suggestion lists, I have included a lot of practical aids for elders that help with the inevitable difficulties that accompany growing old.
They are important especially for elders on tight budgets and they are repeated below from past years. But my mother and her friends preferred more fun-type gifts on holidays and they certainly had a point.
With that in mind, my favorite stupid gift (so far) this year comes from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog – an Indoor Flameless Marshmallow Roaster.
But then I got to thinking that it would be a load of fun to make indoor s'mores when the grandchildren visit in winter so this might not be so silly after all. On the other hand, giving elders – many of whom have enough trouble downsizing - new “stuff” may not be the best idea.
As with all gifts, you need to know the recipient.
Good ideas don't change much year-to-year so I've decided to repeat last year's post with minor updates as seem necessary or useful.
KEEP IN MIND
Even with my above admonition about fun versus practical gifts, I am always concerned about elders with small, fixed incomes so items that seem too mundane to be classified as gifts can be more welcome that you might think. They free up money for food, clothing and medical needs.
How about a basket – a big one – stuffed with a year's supply each of hand soap, bathroom tissue, Kleenex, sink and tub cleaner, batteries in several sizes, paper towels, trash bags, kitchen sponges, half a dozen new dish towels, etc.
If there is a cat or two, include a year's supply of kitty litter or for dogs, a similar amount of pickup bags. Anyone on a tight budget resents how much these necessities cost.
GIFTS OF LOVE AND TIME
Mobility is an issue for some elders. They may have given up driving or can't walk as easily as they once did. So consider vouchers with the local taxi company.
Prepare a certificate for a certain number of trips with you doing the driving during the year to the supermarket and other shops your loved one likes. Throw in lunch or dinner when you do it and then help with toting everything into the house and storing it all.
Tickets to the local movie theater or maybe the local theater group with of course, the taxi vouchers to match. Better, include tickets for yourself and go together.
How about a promise of three or four dinners cooked at your loved one's home during the year. For people with mobility difficulties, having company on certain evenings is a wonderful event to look forward to especially when someone else is cooking and cleaning up.
A supply of home-cooked meals, individually wrapped and ready for the freezer.
If you are handy around the house, check to see what fixes are needed and commit to getting them done. Often there are little things that cost a fortune to hire a handyman, electrician, plumber, etc. so if you have the expertise it is a good thing for your elder.
Showing up regularly to do the laundry throughout the year can be a big help and it creates an opportunity for a regular visit and chat.
Getting and decorating a tree can be impossible for some elders. If you know that someone on your list would love to have a tree of his or her own, buy one and spend an evening helping to decorate it – or maybe put up some outdoor lights if that would be welcome.
Of course, you must help take it all down after the holidays.
Does someone you love need the lawn cut regularly? That's a good gift for spring and summer along with other gardening help in the season and washing windows after winter is done.
If someone who loves gardening has downsized and no longer has a yard, consider some indoor gardening – flowers for color or, perhaps, an herb kit for the kitchen. Another reader suggestion is bird seed and replacement bird feeders.
You get the idea. There are a lot of things in this category.
E-readers have become a popular item with elders so if your friend or relative doesn't have one, this can be a good idea.
Certainly throw in a couple of books with it that you know will be enjoyed and do point out the hundreds of free books on most download sites. I think this is a sensational idea for readers who have downsized and don't have the room anymore for bookshelves.
For people who already have the e-reader hardware, a gift certificate to Amazon or other book download sites is a terrific idea.
For paper reading, you might consider a high-end magnifying glass. I realize it's low tech, but it is an enormous help with small print that, unlike on computers, cannot be enlarged. I have one next to the bed where I read a lot and another on my desk which frequently gets carried to the kitchen for the small print on food packages.
And batteries, lots and lots of batteries for all the things we have nowadays that need them.
A while back, Celia suggested a basket of personal items:
”How about a basket of favorite skin products, lotions, hand creams, foot creams, sunscreen. Look about when you visit and see what they use, men too, my Dad had the driest skin.”
Kathi Williams suggested flashlights which is a terrific suggestion for people who live in areas where the power is known to go out. Several flashlights for various rooms is a good idea.
Carol from CO suggested gift certificates for massages. Just be sure travel to and from is arranged if necessary.
See if your friend or relative has a particular kind of clothing that needs renewing – a favorite style of robe, slippers, sweaters, etc.
For women, a favorite cologne or perfume – an item that may seem too expensive an indulgence on a small income.
SAFETY AND HOME
One year, a reader mentioned night lights. Take a look around next time you visit and see if they may be needed. There are simple ones and playful, fantastical ones that are fun.
If an elder lives alone, consider a personal medical emergency service. Anyone, no matter how active and vital, can find themselves in need of emergency help with no telephone in reach.
A purchase of such an alert gizmo with the service contract paid for each year can be a good peace-of-mind gift. A large number of companies provide this service so you should check them out thoroughly and get recommendations before subscribing.
Also, installing grab bars in the bathroom is a good safety idea that is likely to be appreciated.
A couple of readers have mentioned a collection of greeting cards for a variety of occasions and don't forget the postage stamps to go with them. Help with writing notes and addressing cards is good for arthritic friends.
If you can afford it, you could hire a cleaning service for once a month or if that's too expensive, maybe one big cleaning event for spring.
If you are giving practical gifts or home-made certificates for trips to stores or the movies or taxi vouchers, be sure to include a token physical gift, something to unwrap. It doesn't need to cost much: a scented candle, a favorite candy, a pretty scarf, a bottle of wine.
This list, lengthy as it is, is only a staring point. Now it's time for your suggestions. What gifts have you been most pleased to get? Which ones you have given were successful choies? And what have you given or received that was a mistake.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcy Belson: The Julian House