Finding a meaningful gift for an older person can be challenging, especially if the person has special needs or lives in a nursing home or other care facility. Most people have no idea what limitations frail elderly or individuals with memory problems may have. Appropriate gifts can be inexpensive and simple while providing meaning and joy when the giver mindfully considers the following.

When donating gifts to a nursing home, safety is of primary concern. Labeling exactly what is in a package with a small tag that can be removed enables staff distributing gifts to make sure individuals receive something suitable for them. If a gift isn’t labeled, sometimes it must be opened so staff can identify its contents. Staff know the interests, preferences, needs and concerns of each resident and will make sure the gift is right for the recipient.

Persons with dementia should not be given anything potentially hazardous or toxic like puzzles with small pieces or over-the-counter medication (this includes cough drops or medicated Chapstick). Scented bath gels, lotions, shampoos, flavored lip balms, colognes or aftershaves are popular. With supervision as needed, they provide much sensory pleasure for people of all functional levels.

Edible gifts are acceptable when the person’s dietary recommendations and textures are known. Some residents may need diabetic or gluten-free snacks. Some have fluid restrictions or special weight loss/gain plans. Plus, the texture of their prescribed diet is critical to their safety in regard to chewing and swallowing. Some can eat regular food without problem, but many have “mechanically altered” diets and thickened liquids to prevent choking or aspiration. To ignore these recommendations is to put that person at risk for serious health problems even death. Never, ever give a nursing home resident any edible item with out first asking a staff member if it is safe for them to consume. They will see that residents get food items they can enjoy safely. Soft candy, puff corn, shelf-safe dessert cups, flavored diet soda in small cans and soft cookies are appropriate snacks for most.

Sensory pleasing gifts are perfect for lower functioning people. Color, texture, scent, music and flavor can be incorporated into articles of clothing, fleece throws, photo books, musical cards or CD’s, decorative items, snacks or toiletries. Creating simple theme picture books can be a very good project for young people, which can be even more meaningful if they are personally delivered.

The older population generally doesn’t need a lot of “things.” Consumable goods or items they can reuse or recycle are great. Be sure to consider the person’s past leisure pursuits and life-story, as well as their current interests and abilities. A magazine subscription is useless to someone whose impaired vision prevents them from seeing clearly, but it can be a wonderful gift for others. A homemade, personal memory book or box containing memory stimulating items, photos and memorabilia makes a great gift. Even a simply framed statement like, “I love you Mom” can provide a great deal of comfort. Making a CD of music popular from their youth or their favorite songs can provide hours of pleasant listening. A personal message on a recorded greeting card will bring a smile. A favorite snack or a special meal brought in to share can be a lot of fun too.

The most important gift anyone can give an older person no matter where they live is the gift of time. Visits are priceless. Spending time with, listening and encouraging them to share their life experiences through conversation and reminiscing will enhance their feelings of self worth, make them feel valued, cared for and loved. It will warm their hearts and make their day. That’s a meaningful gift we all have to offer that can’t be purchased or wrapped.

Anyone having questions can contact me at 637-5421.

Ingrid Constalie is the board certified activity director and a certified dementia practitioner at Vernon Manor in Viroqua.

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