The 5 holiday gifts Grandma will actually want

‘Tis the season to decide on holiday gifts for the elders in your family. But what gift to give? Warm slippers?  A magazine subscription?  Yet another flower arrangement?

This year, strive to think a little deeper.

First and foremost, what seniors really crave is our heartfelt TIME, say most long-term care providers. Loneliness and the longing for family connections is often reported as the #1 personal issue for most elders housed in LTC facilities, and only we can change that. (PS: For the record, emails are not the same as a personal visit; nor are those folders full of your high-res .jpeg photos that they may not have any idea how to download, let alone save and print for later viewing.)

For some, visiting loved ones who reside in assisted living or skilled nursing is an enjoyable event; hey, maybe even fun. But for others, it’s enough to stress out the whole family—the adults wonder, “Will the conversation be awkward? What will we talk about?” while the pre-teens roll their eyes, saying “Do we HAVE to go?”

It’s not always easy, but your personal, face-to-face time is the one gift no one else can ever buy for them. Decide to make visiting your elders a family priority, and make it count—much as you would make wrapping gifts or baking cookies a holiday priority.

That duly noted, here’s another gift idea: This year, forget the fruit basket and give a “memory basket” instead. But by “memory,” I don’t mean giving a basket containing a random book about WWII or The Great Depression. You can be much more creative (and meaningful) by giving gift items that can help your elders connect the “then” and the “now.”

Here are my top five suggestions for this year's gift basket. Feel free to combine some or all of them:

1. Music and Film: What was her favorite song?  What movie did he used to watch over and over again? Music is both a powerful memory stimulant and a comfort. Films can be even more powerful. Most senior living communities have CD and DVD players available, if your senior doesn’t have a personal one. Need a compilation CD? Many online outlets (including sell “compilation CDs” that include the top songs of a specific decade or specific music genre (like jazz or swing). Many famous films and Broadway plays from the 20s and 30s have seen rebirth in recent years: For example, the theater play “Chicago” first appeared in 1926, then launched as a Broadway play in 1975, then was re-introduced to a brand-new generation in a 2002 film. (See the idea?)

2. Hobbies: What favorite hobbies does he/she cherish?  “Self-tinkering” can be just as fun and valuable as structured residence-wide activities. Maybe it’s as simple as buying a set of Acrylic paints; or maybe some Balsa wood or craft fabric to play with. If you’re not sure what hobbies your elder is keen on these days, ASK his/her caregiver; they’ll be happy to tell you. After all, Grandpa may have been an avid stamp collector in his 50s, but his current interests may have turned to sports history or art museums these days.

3. Journaling/scrapbooking: Add a wide-ruled journal notebook, and encourage them to write down their own remembrances.  Journaling is such a recognized value for the elderly that it’s a key component of many memory care programs. Several companies even cater to products within this specific niche  ( and, among others). Scrapbooking is a fun way to combine memories and hand-therapy exercise; just remember that elderly or arthritic hands often have trouble cutting paper into small shapes, so provide lots of paper colors and shapes that are pre-cut. (Craft stores often sell bags of miscellaneous paper scraps for little cost, and don’t forget an easy-to-hold glue stick.) PS: Obviously, don’t add scissors, blades or other sharp tools to your gift basket unless you have permission from the nursing staff first; stick to child-safe tools.

4. Context connectors:  Context is one of the most important—yet one of the most challenging—aspects of memory care. Much emphasis is placed on senior reminiscences, but “connecting the dots” between  “then” and “now” is just as crucial. Elders need to know—and often, to be reassured—that they have a valued place in the continuum of things, but too often we shower them with dozens of family photos at once, without connective prompts they can review later on.

  • When you include the latest photo of the great-grandchild, why not add a childhood photo of the parent at a similar age, to show the resemblance? It helps elders keep the family timeline in focus, and just might be a conversation-starter, too. (Doesn’t she have her Mamma’s hair and eyes?) Regardless, be sure to label every photo with the full name and age of the person in it, and add some context for later, such as “Eric’s first son, at his high school graduation.” This small extra step is important for all elders, but especially for those with mild cognitive impairments, as they may become frustrated later if they can’t quite recall what you’d said when you explained the photo to them.
  • Another big FYI about photos: Please don’t ask elderly eyes to squint at your tiny 3” cellphone screen to see those important family photos! Think ahead and borrow someone’s laptop or tablet for a much larger viewing space—Or even better, print the photos out in easy-to-see 5×7 size that you can leave behind when your visit is over.
  • Here’s another “context connection” idea that takes a mere 15 minutes on the Internet and costs nothing: Most people begin to be aware of their global era somewhere between ages 12 and 18. So, take your loved one’s birth year and add 15 years. Then search the Internet for that year to discover what was happening in the world then. (Need a hint? Try, or a basic Google search.) For example, let’s say Gramma is 85, meaning she was born in 1927. Add 15 years, and she was an impressionable teenager in 1942. Why not include a printout of those era-based fun facts in the basket? Yes, of course WWII was on, but she also might have fun recalling that back then, bread cost 9 cents a loaf, a first-class postage stamp was 3 cents, a new car cost about $920 and the hottest films were ”Casablanca” and Bob Hope’s “Road to Morocco.” Does she recall the “scrap metal contributions” for the War effort? Or humming Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” tune? (You get the idea; and you just might learn something about “context” yourself.)

5. Sharing the love: We all know the holidays are the best time for sharing, so why not include a small gift for a friend? Add a special envelope offering a small gift that Grandpa can give to one of his friends in the residence. This gift idea, of course, depends greatly on the  mobility and health conditions of those involved, etc, so provide 1-3 situation-appropriate idea choices at first—perhaps a simple plate of favorite foods (remember the gift of fried green tomatoes in the film of the same name?), a special music CD, or even a future afternoon out together at the local zoo–and then be open to Grandpa's suggestion of something more impactful. The idea is to get Grandpa involved in sharing the holiday spirit among his own friends at the residence, while also allowing him to participate in choosing the most appropriate gift for his friend.  Because Grandpa’s friend just might be a resident who has little family and never has any visitors, or who has a special interest few people know about.

So, this holiday season, decide to VISIT your elders. Just decide to GO THERE. And take a basket full of fun memories and activities with you.

And while you’re visiting, be sure to thank the caregivers who spend their days caring for your loved one. They can’t hear it enough.

Topics: Alzheimer's/Dementia , Clinical , Executive Leadership , Rehabilitation