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Put Gifts of Love, Not Things, on a Wish List for Older Adults

Beautiful blooms, favorite foods, practical items and companionship will make their holidays brighter

By Joanne Cleaver

They don't want things. They can't enjoy outings.

What do you give older loved ones whose worlds are smaller, slower and lived in the moment?

Striking red flowers in a pot in front of a window. Next Avenue, gift ideas, inexpensive
The queenly Amaryllis flowers are set on thick stems that emerge from turnip-like bulbs  |  Credit: Getty

Scale everything but the love, advises Liz O'Donnell, founder of online community and resources site Working Daughter.

"Give yourself the freedom to rethink the holidays. For so many, the holidays are packed with grief. And the culture is joy, joy, joy," says O'Donnell, who founded the community in 2015. During the holidays, it's death by a thousand gift-paper cuts to cling to expectations that celebrations should continue as they always have.

She's right, as I have learned as I help my own 89-year-old mother choose the few traditions she will continue in her independent living apartment. The white porcelain crèche: yes. A little tree, no. A few iced cookies: yes. Helping with the annual great-grandkids' gingerbread-house-making extravaganza: no.

The Gift of Blooming Flowers

One tradition that I started twenty years ago, though, I'll continue. This year is the start of the third decade that I've had a basket of budding bulbs delivered to my mother. The basket arrives in mid-December and by the new year, green shoots are rocketing up. By early January, grape hyacinth shake their sequined blooms. Then come daffodils and finally the tulips, as each takes its turn in the choreographed bouquet.

"Give yourself the freedom to rethink the holidays."

The bulb basket is one of several ideas that I and others have hit on as perfect gifts for loved ones who no longer want or need things or high-energy experiences. Here's the best of our collective gift-giving wisdom.

For blooms yet this year, head to your nearest higher-end nursery and look for paperwhite narcissus bulbs, which arrive at stores ready to spring up, says Elisabeth Davis, the staff expert on forcing bulbs to bloom early at the Matthews, North Carolina outpost of Pike Nurseries, a chain based in Georgia.

Narcissus have a distinct scent that people either love or hate, she says, so be sure that the perfume won't overwhelm a small or shared space where your loved one spends most of their time. But, she adds, there's nothing like the frothy flowers for near-immediate results. Choose the container first, she says: a wide-bottomed glass vase is perfect. Buy stone chips or glass marbles to nestle around the bulbs to keep them upright. Add and keep water to the midlevel of the bulbs…and wait for the roots, then the shoots.

For single-shot drama, Davis recommends an amaryllis. These queenly flowers are set on thick stems that emerge from turnip-like bulbs. They need only a sturdy pot and a little dirt to set up their show. Choose one with several buds already emerging from its new stem and your loved one could have several showy blooms, one after another, for a whole month. "Pick a pink or white one," advises Davis, to forecast spring rather than echo the holiday.

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While you're at the nursery, check out their tabletop, live, predecorated Christmas trees. A two-foot tree is perfect for a bedside or coffee table and doesn't inflict a needle hangover. When the holiday is done, plant it outside.

Consider Gifts of Food, Comfort and Practical Items

Food is a favorite consumable, if comes in easily opened packages and in an easy-to-use form. Ground coffee in specialty varietals is a perfect stocking stuffer (don't tell my mom!).  Less is more, when it comes to richer and more exotic food. Go for smaller containers of fancier food, like imported jam. If your loved one rustles up their own breakfasts, why not make a basket of stepped-up versions of their favorite coffees, jams, syrups and hot chocolate mixes? Install a box of frozen waffles in their freezer and you've set them up for some very pleasant mornings.

Gift cards actually aren't very easy to use for those who don't shop much any more.

Soothing textures meet eroding sense in cashmere socks, cashmere gloves and soft wool throws. Fingerless gloves support a warm, yet firm, grip on canes and walkers.

Set them up to spread their own good cheer with boxes of note cards; stamps; and labels already filled out with addresses of people you know they want to stay in touch with. Boxes of birthday cards with universally appealing scenery can be found online or at old-school stationery stores and enable those living in communities to celebrate neighbors' birthdays without fussing endlessly at the grocery store card counter.

Some "silver bullet" gifts are actually misfires, warns O'Donnell. Gift cards actually aren't very easy to use for those who don't shop much any more. Sidestep smart-anything technology, which is not as intuitive for those with cognitive issues as Silicon Valley solutions-builders assume. And cosmetics and skin creams are best left to the individual to choose, as it's hard for someone else to discern the textures, colors and formulations that actually work on aging skin, she says. And "no subscriptions," O'Donnell says, unless you want to take on the chore of canceling it.

When outside excursions are no longer practical, focus instead on activities that can be enjoyed moment by moment, O'Donnell says. Try puzzles designed for people with cognitive decline; large-print playing cards and simple watercolor art. It's the doing that they love, says O'Donnell, and being with those they love.

Finally, says O'Donnell, "Give things that aren't stressful for you." Care for yourself in the process of caring for the ones you love.

Joanne Cleaver
Joanne Cleaver is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C. She covers women's issues, travel, entrepreneurship, financial planning and retirement readiness. She has authored seven nonfiction books, the most recent being The Career Lattice: Combat Brain Drain, Improve Company Culture, and Attract Top Talent. Read More
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