Gift Guide for People in Nursing Homes

If someone you care for is in a nursing home, you may be struggling to think of something useful to give this holiday season. They don't need much and what they do need changes quickly. I've made a gift list for nursing home, Alzheimer's and dementia patients to help you navigate the murky waters:


A picture phone can help an old person use the telephone with less stress.

A touch-dial picture phone can ease an elderly person's stress about using the telephone. Once familiar objects become confusing and those new-fangled cordless phones with all the buttons just aren't gonna work. Set the phone up for your Aged P. ahead of time - pictures included. If your Aged P. has dementia you might consider using a photo of the person from many years ago - older memories are often more stable than more recent times. A person with dementia might also do better with fewer choices - a four picture phone vs. ten as pictured here.


Bright colorful clothing will make nursing home staff respond more positively to the patient.


I work in arts management with a heavy side of theatre. Trust me when I say that there is a great deal of science behind the art of the costume. Snazzy loungewear like this top from Old Navy will make a big difference for your old person day-to-day. A bright, stripey top like this one will stand out in a dementia unit (or any kind of unit) and encourage a positive response to the patient from staff. Sad, but true. Jeggings. Because who wants to end their life in a pair of Walmart sweatpants? An orange cardigan. Things that are cheap, comfortable, and easy to launder. If you can find something with a little polyester in it so it doesn't shrink? That's not a bad thing. Staff don't take time to read care instructions. And things always need to be replaced. My experience is that my Mom burns through clothes pretty quickly. Pajamas, socks, and underwear would also be very useful items to send at the holidays.


A pair of Skechers will be both snazzy and functional. The lace-free elastic is great for arthritic hands and makes the slip-on shoe snug and supportive. They give your Aged P. the stability they need to get around but don't look like this. My Mom is the snazziest person on the memory ward.It makes a big, big difference in her mood when staff, family, and friends walk in and give her a huge smile because she's super cute.


Handwritten letter subscription available from


My handwritten letter subscription is a nice gift. You will never be able to give your parent enough training on The Email to allow them to use it the way you wish they would. Give up. Old people live for postal mail. LIVE FOR IT. They are clustered around the mailboxes every day anxiously awaiting the postie's arrival. There are signs posted at the nursing home reception desk that announce whether the mail HAS or HAS NOT arrived yet that day.

If your old person is in more advanced stages of illness they probably just want mail from you. Caregivers can always help read and share your news if your loved one is no longer able to read. Can you set a goal of a couple of postcards a week? Can the postcard be an old photo from your shared memory book? Twice a week sounds like a big commitment, but a week is an eternity for a person living in care. Remember that this is a relatively short term commitment. Can you reach out to friends, neighbors, colleagues and others and share the nursing home address, encouraging mail? This would be one of the best gifts you could ever come up with.



Consider hiring someone to do an oral history. This gift has a dual purpose: First, it will preserve precious family memories for years to come. Second, it assigns a work project of real importance in the patient's life. My sister did this for my Mom and it was a great idea. More than the book that came out of it - my Sociologist Mother enjoyed her weekly meetings with the archivist and the feeling of satisfaction that came from being on one last project. It's not cheap. But it was worth it.



With your parents' permission, arrange and pay for a trip to see an elder care attorney. They won't want to spend the money. Have the difficult conversations while parents are still able to participate and put them down on paper. Make them feel secure about how their end-of-life decisions will be handled. Execute Power of Attorney decisions for finances. File paperwork to protect their assets from caregivers. Make it clear which of the kids is responsible for what and identify who won't be able to handle it. I discovered in our elder care meetings that I supported my Mom's wish to "flip the switch" if it came to that, but I wasn't going to be able to do it. Better to know, now, than to be sorting through it at the last possible moment.



Soft toys are good company for a person in the later stages of Alzheimer's. Find a squishy, washable toy that's really huggable.


Gift cards for caregivers in a nursing home is a great idea.

A gift card to a store like Target. Not for your old person, but for each of their caregivers from your parent. It doesn't have to be much, but it is a helpful gesture of thanks to an overworked employee. Your parent's caregivers probably earn less than $10 an hour and deal with all the stuff you don't want to know about. Like the snazzy outfits, it helps caregivers see your parents as more than a room number. And everyone craves appreciation for a difficult job done. Right?


Here's a quick list of gifts I think you should avoid and/or discourage from friends and family: 

Avoid soaps, lotions, perfumes, candles and other cosmetic items. They may irritate sensitive skin or trigger allergies in other patients. Staff may just remove them from the room for safety reasons, anyway. Your Aged P. may be perfectly capable of knowing what to do with them but things tend to migrate to common areas or other rooms. You don't want someone in a more advanced stage of dementia drinking perfume. 

Avoid books and magazines. As sad as it is, your old person probably doesn't have the ability to concentrate and enjoy reading as they did before. They will pile up in the corner and you will just have to deal with removing the clutter later. They DO enjoy being read to - I read family papers and old letters to my Mom when I visit and she really enjoys it. She can remember many things from her childhood and family stories about her grandparents. She also just enjoys listening to my voice.

Avoid blank cards. I donated a garbage bag FULL of blank stationery from my mother's home.


I think that covers it! What other gifts are good for people in care? I'd love to hear your thoughts!     

Comments (3 Comments)

PS — add a magnifying glass to your gift list — unless safety bars it. Invaluable. Also, someone should invent some kind of big magnet thing, that can whisk a walking stick, pair of glasses, etc from where it is/they are to where the wearer is! If I am not looking for where my Mum has left her glasses (three pairs!), I am searching for her walking stick(s), or the newspaper! Luckily my Mum can still read — but the magnifying glass really helps her, on top of her glasses (long story — optician can’t really improve on her prescription). Bit of a long PS …. !!

Posted by Pamela Apps on November 20, 2013

Hi Heidi — just reading your list — excellent! When I was going round some of the care homes here, with Mum, their bathrooms had a lot of red in them (hand rails etc), rather than the usual white. I am trying to remember what I was told – perhaps you can help - that people with dementia cannot see certain colours. Know anything about this? One person in the home never ate peas - turned out he couldn’t see then on the plate. So your suggestion about colour is brilliant (excuse the pun), in many ways!!

Posted by Pamela Apps on November 20, 2013

Heidi, this is a brilliant list! Thank you so much for the clever ideas, including remembering carers too. I particularly like what you can avoid. I would love to reblog this is a guest post on my blog (with your permission and credit, of course).

Writing a postcard or letter is a great idea. I had a lovely phone call from my Nanna the other day after she received my mushy letter. The only thing I’d add to the list is a visit. “stuff” can never replace a warm hug, walk in the garden or quiet beer with your loved one (I take my nanna to the pub when I see her so we can have an outing – she loves an cream whiskey!)

Posted by Lissanne on November 20, 2013

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