This holiday season, gift lists abound. From the hottest electronic games for kids to the most innovative gadgets for foodies, you can get suggestions to please friends and relatives of all ages from mall Santas, magazine writers and online reviewers. But there's one group for whom it may be more complicated to shop, even though they deserve something special: the caregivers within our families and among our friends, as well as those who work with our aging loved ones.
There are 65 million family caregivers in the United States, or 1 in every 3 households. About 66 percent of them are women who spend an average of 20 hours a week caring for an older or ill family member or sons or daughters wounded in military service. Seven out of 10 caregivers juggle these responsibilities with full- or part-time jobs.
In other words, there's almost certainly a caregiver in your family or at your office. And they'll appreciate a gift that recognizes their vital labor of love.
Gifts of Time and Companionship
The greatest gifts, especially for those in the role full-time, are respite and companionship. The job can be physically and emotionally draining, as well as isolating. A gift that offers time away from home with friends and family is always welcome. Think about tickets to a movie or concert, a set of yoga classes, gift cards for manicures and pedicures or even a bed-and-breakfast weekend.
But make sure to take the related step of arranging for coverage so that you're not burdening the recipient with the task of hiring additional care just to get away for an afternoon or evening. Other family members — starting with you, of course — may be able to step in or a local respite group may be able to help. If your recipient is in a caregiving "sandwich," looking after an elder during the day and young children at night, you may want to hire a babysitter for the kids as part of your present.
The gift of time can take other forms, says Patty Mouton, advocacy director with the Alzheimer's Association. It could be something as simple as giving the caregiver time off inside the home, like a housecleaning or handyman service or a weekly lunch delivery from a favorite local eatery. This can be a welcome break from some of the chores that can overwhelm their days and sap their energy. It'll be even nicer if you add a small, traditional gift, like books, CDs or wine as a way of acknowledging the person's life involves more than just a set of responsibilities. Animal companionship is another option — the caregiver may even be interested in sharing a dog with you.
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The online network Lotsa Helping Hands helps connect caregivers with volunteers who can support them and their loved ones. As a holiday gift giver, you could set up an online support community where friends, relatives and others can sign up to tackle a task on a "help calendar." For someone whose tendency is not to ask for assistance, establishing an online resource can really make a difference.
(MORE: How Online Volunteers Support Caregivers)
You may also want to acknowledge the professionals who support your families with home care. Holiday cash bonuses are, of course, always welcome. So are gas cards, Visa or American Express gift cards, or, for travelers, airline miles. "Hired caregivers are in a challenging line of work and most of them could use some extra dollars," says blogger Shannon Ingram of boomerreviews.com. "Anything you can give them will be appreciated."
In the end, what speaks loudest during the holidays, or anytime of year, is an acknowledgment that you recognize and appreciate what the caregivers in your life do. Whether you express it with cash, gifts, services or a heartfelt note, your honesty and sincerity will help make their season.
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