Let's start with a few don'ts:
- It should be obvious, but apparently it is not: Don't bring in anything that the recipient can't eat -- no sugary treats for those with diabetes, no nuts or popcorn for those with diverticulitis (although that may be an old wives' tale, as a study published in 2009 seems to indicate). If you have any doubts, do your research and check with a nurse.
- Be sensible: don't give a boom box to someone with a roommate -- unless it's accompanied by earphones and instructions for using them.
- Don't give conventional books to someone with failing vision, or books on tape to someone with no means of listening to them.
- Don't give a gift that could be a fire hazard. That means none of those cute little packages of tea, mug and plug-in cup heater. No hot plates. Nothing that plugs in and heats up without automatically turning itself off after a few unattended minutes.
- Don't give an appliance if it will only cause frustration. A prime problem: phones with built-in answering machines. Younger residents may really appreciate them, but I promise you that they can reduce many old folk to tears in very short order.
There are far better choices available to those who know their residents fairly well. For instance:
- This is the generation that wrote letters, and many still do. Books of pretty stamps are always welcome, as are boxes of stationery or a selection of cards for any occasion -- Get Well, Happy Birthday, Thank You and Thinking of You are perfect.
- Look for wonderful new books or old favorites for a reader, large-print if necessary; I recently discovered a resident with a shared passion for Kathleen Thompson Norris, the highest-paid woman novelist of the early 20th century. (I'll blog about her books one of these days. She's wonderful!)
- Many will welcome reading accessories such as clip-on night lights (with a supply of batteries) or magnifying sheets or glasses.
- If the nurse okays it, candy and cookies are always a big hit.
- How about a jigsaw puzzle, if there's a place to assemble it? And how about personalizing it? I'm currently searching for one featuring turtles for a resident who loves both puzzles and turtles -- if I can find the right one, I think she'll be delighted.
- If the home has a beauty shop, you could pay for a shampoo, cut and set for a resident who's low on funds (which seems to be most of them).
- An easy-to-care-for plant may be just the ticket, especially for someone who once enjoyed gardening. Surprisingly, an orchid can be great; it may not live forever, but some of the most common types will bloom for a long time and need only an ice cube a week for moisture. And what an exotic gift it makes!
- For the right resident and the right room, a stuffed toy can turn into a beloved "companion." And there are some very cool, battery-operated cats and dogs available today; but bring extra batteries and make sure there'll be someone available to change them.
- Another nifty gift is a pair of earphones for TV listening. The resident's roommate will appreciate them, and that can help keep the peace for everyone concerned; and your loved one won't have to miss a thing.
- For the man or woman who has everything, you might want to consider making a donation in his or her name to a cause that he or she loves -- his or her church, or a local humane society, or the Rescue Mission or Salvation Army.
But the best gift at all for someone living in a nursing home is the gift of time. Lavish it on him or her not only during the Christmas season, but every month of the year!