It’s gift-giving season for many of us, and it’s tough to find a decent gift for many seniors. So here’s my gift-guide for buying for older folk. (Which you really need to read, because we seniors are so darned fussy.)
It’s probably simpler to start with a list of things you should not get.
Don’t add to a collection
Years ago, my mother visited from England, and she brought me a cactus planter. Lacking any semblance of social grace, I happened to ask why she had chosen cactus, and she said that I always used to buy her cactus, and so she thought I liked them. It turned out that neither of us really liked cactus. So just because someone has 74 elephant-themed ornaments in their house it doesn’t mean they are necessarily itching for number 75.
And if the person happens to be a serious collector, then it’s quite likely you don’t know enough to make a welcome addition, anyway.
Don’t gift knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, curios or baubles
Your favourite senior has been lying awake at nights for the last ten years wondering how to get rid of all the stuff they already have. What could possibly possess you to add to that burden?
Same for kitchen implements
They long since filled up every kitchen drawer and square inch of counter space, and they have their own way of doing things. Cracking an egg does not require a special tool.
We have four house plants that are well over forty years old. That’s enough. I’ve taken to planting any inadvertent additions out in the garden in an area I call death row. They get a Summer of freedom and fresh air and then take their chances over Winter. We’re trying to downsize, not take up horticulture.
Same goes for pets. No, I don’t plant them outside, but if someone donates a pet to our household, I may well plant the donor outside.
If a senior has a hobby, it’s likely they have been collecting the stuff they need for many years. You can’t win: if you see them using a beaten-up tool and replace it with a shiny new one, you may get a polite thank-you, but the truth is they probably already have three new ones in the basement, but they really like the old one.
You also have to know enough about the hobby to get the right stuff, because seniors do tend to form, shall we say, “firm” opinions as to what is good and what’s bad. However, many senior photographers would accept a Nikon D850 DSLR camera, if pressed.
Some may think that it’s safe to buy hobby-related consumable items, like sandpaper, or sewing needles. This is not a bad idea, and I intend to explore it below, but there is a danger here, and that is that over thirty or forty years, a senior can collect a lot of sandpaper. (I have personal experience of this, and I’ve given my wife more spare sewing needles than she can hide in a haystack.)
So what does that leave?
Well, you could ask them what they want, but where’s the fun in that? However, this is an immensely practical solution. Speaking from a mound of personal research (I asked my wife) I’ll say that most seniors, and probably most people in general, hate to see waste and at least for the largest presents, they would much prefer to be asked. Turning that around, one of the nicest things one can do is to provide a timely, diverse list of gift ideas you would like to receive, or if you can pull it off, (I can’t!) drop subtle clues in the months before.
To my mind, the ideal present is something the recipient really wants, but would not necessarily go out and buy. So what kinds of present meet those criteria?
The advantage of this is that even if the person already has some, they will get around to using the ones you added. Remember the warning about sandpaper – check if you can whether there is already a stockpile. Stay away from pseudo-consumables, like gloves, wallets, slippers, perfume and toiletries. I’ve cleared out enough estate homes to know that these tend to accumulate (and possibly breed) in drawers and at the back of cupboards.
So get a consumable that the recipient is known to like, has an expiry date, and doesn’t get purchased that often.
Luxury does not necessarily mean horribly expensive. It could be Miss Vickies chips for the person who normally eats Lays, or Lindt chocolate for a Cadbury eater. Or Johnny Walker Black Label scotch instead of Red, but maybe one of the smaller bottles. The idea is that many older people have got in the habit of watching their expenditures, and even though they can afford better, they don’t splurge often, so it’s your job to indulge them.
Following the idea of consumables to an obvious conclusion, a gift certificate to a favourite restaurant can be a good idea, or taking them yourself can be a great idea. Going up a level or two in the class of eatery adds in the luxury theme, so long as the recipient doesn’t start to see it as a waste of money – but surely your presence will help.
Clothes wear out
Some people can choose clothing for others successfully and some can’t even buy clothes for themselves. I’m in the latter camp, which makes me the ideal recipient for replacement items that are beginning to show signs of being loved for one or two too many decades.
If you are an experienced clothes buyer, this idea might work for you. In my experience, it’s a minefield. I have a dressing gown that my mother got me when I went away to school. It may be a bit worn (I don’t think so) but I only ever wear it when I’m sick or the dog wants out at 2 a.m. so to me this is definitely not a candidate for replacement. Then there’s the warm outer hoodie that my son outgrew ten years ago which I wear for Fall gardening. It gets dirty and stained, but it’s warm and comfortable, I love it and I wash it every three years or so, even if it doesn’t need it yet. Hands off!
So there are clothing items that are off limits. I think you have to know the person quite well for this tactic to be successful; maybe it’s best left to spouses and possibly children.
Older people already have too much stuff, and they have a fairly immutable idea of what they like and dislike. It’s not easy to find a decent gift. So my advice, if you weren’t able to get an idea list, is to find something they like to eat or drink and buy a small amount in a premium quality, taking into account their diet, allergies, current stocks and expiration dates.
Or you could always get them a D850.