The Best and Worst Holiday Gifts for Older Adults

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While there's never a shortage of ideas for what to buy children for the holidays, it's just the opposite for older family members. When it comes to asking aging relatives what they want, the typical response is, "Don't get me anything. I don't need another thing."

Often, that response is earnest. Older adults truly do feel they have everything that's needed and as they look to downsize, material items can often be more of a burden than a blessing.

Despite the plea for no gifts, most adult children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews or friends will—out of tradition, obligation or an instilled sense of guilt—purchase a holiday present or two for their aging loved ones anyway. However, with no directive on what to purchase, these well-intended gift-givers can easily wind up giving items that actually do more harm than good.

Below is are two lists: one is a run-down of gifts that will bring older adults fun, health and wellness, and one is a roster of gifts that will likely become a source of frustration or potential risk for an aging relative. As with any gift, the more "person-centered," the better: a gift that connects with your loved one's life as they know it today, or one that makes a connection with life as they experienced it yesteryear is always a winner!

Hits: gifts likely to bring a smile and add value

  • Help for arthritic hands: Gadgets that enable older adults to more easily perform day-to-day activities, such as unwrapping difficult-to-open packages, or reaching too-high items, are always appreciated. After all, such gifts help them maintain their independence in subtle, yet very real ways. There are numerous products available designed to assist with these tasks—just be sure to carefully instruct the older adult on safe use. Consider including a "coupon" from the giver for a trial run making dinner or cleaning the house with the new gadgets.
  • Big coffee table books: Books with large, colorful photos are easy on the eyes and often can bring back pleasant memories of vacations and beloved hobbies.
  • A digital picture frame: Pre-loaded digital photo frames that flash images of grandchildren, old photos, etc. can help an older adult more easily enjoy their treasured images of family and friends, rather than forcing them to sift through numerous photo albums or envelopes filled with old photos. Why not take some of the best shots of the past and present, and preload them onto a digital photo frame?
  • Games with straightforward rules: Scrabble, Monopoly, crossword puzzle books—games are always a crowd-pleasing gift, and a way to build relationships between multiple generations. Word games in particular are simple, can be done alone or with others, and help build cognitive skills and memory, keeping brain muscles sharp.
  • The gift of fitness: Many older adults would appreciate receiving simple equipment that could help them build strength and improve quality of life, especially if the gift giver offers to visit to do the exercises together. Examples of easy-to-use fitness equipment include: light weights, elastic bands and balance balls.
  • Music to their ears: Numerous studies have validated the positive effect of music on the emotional and physical well-being of older adults. A caregiver may need to assist with operating a CD player or other electronics, but loading a loved one's favorite tunes onto a digital music player (e.g. an iPod) is one easy way to share the gift of music.
  • A place to pen their thoughts: A journal is a thoughtful gift that enables an older adult to record their thoughts, memories, and life lessons for future generations. If your aging loved one is still able to handle a pen and write, they can write the entries themselves. If not, a caregiver or family member can assist them. It's a great way for them to tell stories and recall memories, as well as provide a lasting keepsake for the family.

Misses: Gifts that could frustrate or cause harm

  • Store gift cards: Older adults often believe the stores will go out of business before they have a chance to use the cards, or they might not be able to get to the stores on their own. A gift card to a restaurant or movie theater is much better – as long as it is accompanied by an invitation from the gift giver to join them for lunch and movie.
  • Scented candles: It's extremely risky to provide an older adult (especially one with dementia or some form of cognitive impairment) with a flammable item that presents a fire hazard such as a scented candle, as they are likely to forget it was lit, fall asleep and leave it unattended.
  • Framed static photos of the kids: Your loved one is likely to have plenty of these, and the last thing they need is another item to dust or clean on the shelves. The digital photo frame suggested above saves space and adds an element of anticipation for the next photo to flash up.
  • The latest gadget: The latest and greatest new phone or electronic gadget may be great for the younger set, but such a gift could be a source of great frustration for older adults who seek simplicity in life.
  • Exercise workout DVDs: Most of the workouts on these DVDs are too intense for the older population and could cause dangerous strain on your loved one's heart and muscles, cause dizziness, falls, injury or even death. The low-impact exercise equipment mentioned above is a much better option.
  • Wine or other alcoholic beverages: Alcohol can cause dangerous interactions with medications, resulting in dizziness, falls and other health issues.
  • Board games with small pieces and/or complex rules: While some games are great, those with complex rules can frustrate an older adult and negate any enjoyment they might have otherwise received from playing. Small pieces can also be difficult for older adults who struggle with dexterity.

More important than giving material gifts, families and friends should focus on doing meaningful activities with aging loved ones to create "Visits of Value" during the holidays, such as taking them to church or synagogue, attending a holiday performance (play or movie), helping them shop for gifts online (or in stores if they are physically capable).

Things like writing out holiday cards together, decorating the tree, baking a traditional family cookie recipe together or watching a classic holiday movie together will lift their spirits and create beautiful lasting memories. Even listening to their favorite music together—music can be very powerful for the spirit. There is no better gift for any aging loved one then the gift of time. .


Sharon Roth Maguire, MS, RN, GNP-BC, is Chief Clinical Quality Officer of BrightStar Care, a national private duty home care and medical staffing franchise with more than 260 locations that can provide medical and non-medical services to clients within their homes, as well as supplemental care staff to corporate clients.

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22 Comments

My sister sends my mom an amaryllis bulb in a pot. Mom loves to watch it grow, it puts out huge blooms and she just has to water it now and then.
Not a bad article ... for the right elders. My mom is in a nursing home, unable to walk and not much able to write anymore. Very few of these ideas apply to her.

My husband had dementia. One from the no-no list that would have been OK for him was alcohol -- his doctors' approved of up to two drinks a day, and a bottle of wine or a case of beer was a fine gift. But only because he had a full-time caregiver (me) to supervise.

Many of the responses contain excellent suggestions, too.

My sisters and I visit Mom every week (she has 4 to 7 visits a week). We give her things as they come up during the year. When she took an interest in the beading activity, I bought a big jar of big beads and a case to sort them into. On some of my visits we sat and sorted beads. I knew she couldn't actually string them and we saved that for the activity sessions with helpers, but she loves sorting things. When you see an interest or a need, strike while the iron is hot. Don't wait for holidays.

Our family is getting together at the nursing home for a holiday event. That is usually between 20 and 30 people. That many gifts all at once would be overwhelming, she'd have no place in her tiny room to store them, and really is right -- she doesn't need anything. So "The Girls" (the 4 of us who visit regularly) have asked for small gifts suitable for bingo prizes instead. Mother LOVES winning bingo prizes, so keeping the NH stock of prizes replenished will make her happy.
I have two ideas to add.

For one parent (79 yrs old) who lives independently and is very mobile, we gave her 3 season tickets to the symphony. Then for each performance, different family members picked her up and went with her. This meant she got to do something she loved with family. She would not have gone alone. Also, she realized that for some of her kids, it was the first time she had done an activity with just the child and their spouse/ partner for many many years.

For another parent (92 years) with moderate dementia, I loaded a few dozen songs on an iPod shuffle ($49) for him to listen to. For someone who is not tech savvy, a shuffle is perfect because they can just push one button that starts and stops the music. There are a few important points here. 1)You will have to plug it in to charge it periodically. 2) It is important to get over the ear headphones ($10). 3) You have to figure out what music they enjoyed when they were younger. Part of the magic is the music seems to trigger memory. For more information on this try to see the documentary "Alive Inside". It is a wonderful and inspiring film.