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Grandma doesn't need more clutter

Do the elders in your life a big favor: Skip the dust-catchers in favor of holiday gifts that make a difference.

By Donna_Freedman Dec 17, 2012 12:22PM
Logo: Gifts (Image Source Black/Jupiterimages)A friend's elderly mother has an ironclad rule: Any time she brings home a new item, she gets rid of two previous possessions. The result is a comfortable living space decorated with a few choice items that she treasures.

This makes her tough to buy for: What to give the person who already has everything she wants?

Buying for seniors can be a real challenge. If you're lucky, the elders in your life have have well-defined habits that make them easy to please: good wine, books, collectibles, gourmet foods, hobby supplies.

But some have health issues that rule out gifts of food. Others, like my friend's mom, don't have an answer when you ask, "What do you want for Christmas?" Or maybe they're too shy (or too proud) to say what they could really use, especially if they're on fixed incomes that aren't stretching far enough.

Rather than buy on autopilot (picture frame, candle, "No. 1 Grandpa" coffee mug), put a little thought into your gift.

For seniors on fixed incomes, the most-needed presents are generally the practical ones. I'm giving my 87-year-old aunt a drugstore gift card to take care of supplies that Medicare doesn't cover.

Then again, Grandma might enjoy something luxurious, like a therapeutic massage. And maybe Great-Uncle Eddie would appreciate some Facebook credits instead of the usual Hickory Farms basket.

Not all the suggestions below will fit your particular situation. For example, not all seniors have health issues that would keep them from enjoying that cheese log, and some elders are hale and hearty and don't need physical help.

But if you're having trouble picking out and/or paying for gifts, these ideas can get you started.

Practical stuff

Have three months' worth of staple groceries, paper products, pet food or other necessities delivered. If it's within your budget, set up a recurring shipment.

Hired help.
Arrange for a lawn service for the summer, a once-a-month heavy cleaning or some other type of chores. (Or do it yourself.)

Adaptive kitchen tools.
In "Imaginative gifts for seniors" at The Dollar Stretcher, Susan Sundall notes that an ergonomic potato peeler made a huge difference: "I know (my friend) didn't pay more than $6 for it, but it's one of the best Christmas gifts I ever got." Jar and can openers, spatulas and other devices that make cooking easier can be found in just about any discount or department store.

The gift of warmth.

Some elders are always chilly. Look for silk or polypropylene long underwear (these lightweight layers make a huge difference) or cozy wool-blend socks. Buy or make a soft shawl, or purchase a heated throw. For more ideas, see "How to survive the 'thermostat wars'."

Make meals easier.
If the elders in your life are having trouble cooking, see if there's a Meals on Wheels program. Another option is a home-cooked meals delivery service. Or if you and other relatives live in the area, take turns bringing homemade entrees to be frozen in meal-sized portions.

Just for fun
Gift cards.
That is, if you're sure the elder in your life won't be offended. He or she might want to see a movie, select craft supplies, go out for lunch, run wild through a bookstore (remember those?), buy some hardware or have a facial. Shop for discounted gift cards on the secondary market for through the Gift Card Granny aggregator site; note that some of these sellers on GCG may be accessed through cash-back shopping sites like and Mr. Rebates.


Event tickets. A baseball game, theater, opera, a trade show -- whatever appeals. Remember to ask for the senior discount. If the recipient doesn't drive, arrange for round-trip transportation.

Treat basket.
Choose easy-to-cook items such as soup, frozen dinners, vegetables and packaged goods, suggests Chantel Alise in "How to choose Christmas gifts for senior citizens." Healthy (and tasty!) versions of all those foodstuffs do exist, at places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Or make a basket of fancy dried fruits, flavored crackers, biscotti, pita or bagel chips and a selection of teas, coffees or cocoa mix.

Puzzles and games.
Although there's no evidence that Sudoku, crosswords and board games can prevent Alzheimer's disease, they're certainly a nice change of pace from television. Note: Some dollar stores sell puzzle books, including large-print varieties.

It's lightweight and the print size can be adjusted if necessary. Include some sources of free downloadable e-books, such as Google, Open Library and Project Gutenberg.  


Health and wellness
This healing art is simultaneously relaxing and rejuvenating, and it can help relieve some of the aches and pains that develop as we age. Watch for social buying vouchers (I've seen massage for as little as $29), but be sure the practitioner has experience with older clients.

Exercise class.
Yoga for seniors, "chair-robics," tai chi, water fitness -- look for these and other programs at community centers, the YMCA and health clubs.

Cheap or free

Perhaps you could just add the senior to your family plan (I've got a relative on mine for $10 per month). Or buy a prepaid cell and make sure the recipient has enough minutes. A phone provides social connection and also a measure of safety if the senior feels ill or suffers a fall.

"Stuffed" calendar.
This is another idea by Sundall: "Purchase a calendar with a motif your (recipient) will love and then go through and mark important dates, such as birthdays of friends and family, upcoming events, and anniversaries." Putting in some stamped greeting cards will make it easy to remember special dates. Note: Dollar stores sell calendars and cards. Another gift to my 87-year-old aunt this year is a selection of greeting cards that charities have sent me, along with a book of stamps.

Magazine subscriptions.
Sites like My Bargain Buddy and regularly feature magazine offers for as little as $5 per year.

Help with chores.
 This article at notes that tasks like changing light bulbs and cleaning out roof gutters can be dangerous for seniors with balance issues. Even keeping up with the laundry can get to be too much. If you live nearby, stop in every week or two to lend a hand.

Living history.
Make a date to sit down with the elderly person and ask questions about the family and what he or she remembers about growing up in your area. Ask for help identifying the people in old family photos, too. Write up your findings and email a copy to all relatives who are interested.

What gifts do you plan to give the elders in your life?

More on MSN Money:

Dec 17, 2012 4:06PM

My 90-year-old mother was a hoarder who believed the more items she bought and the longer she kept them, the more valuable they would become.  Her passing resulted in a series of auctions, loads of donations to the Goodwill store, other donations (hand towels, bath towels to the local veterinarian), and many trips to the local landfill.  It took well over a year.  Having gone through that, I have begun to clean out my own home and ask for only 'consumable items' from my family.  Gourmet coffee is a good choice if your senior doesn't drink wine or can't eat certain foods.  Candles may be dangerous for some seniors.  Time spent completing chores for seniors, or even being included in a family dinner and game night are inexpensive and very much appreciated.

Dec 17, 2012 1:28PM

Find out where they shop and get them gift cards.  Grocery stores, drug stores, big box stores are good choices.


Elderly people also like the gift of time with you.  Take them out to eat or hire a plumber to fix the leaky faucet.


What they don't need is another ugly sweater or a bottle of stinky perfume.

Dec 20, 2012 9:59AM
We Grandmas don't need "stuff", nor do we need tickets to whatever or another magazine or electronic gadgets we can't figure out or "gourmet baskets" with overpriced junk food. Get real folks, especially for the average to below average income elderly parents we got them groceries, filled the home heating oil tank, paid a cleaning service to shampoo the rugs and clean the windows, all the stuff they no longer can do and can't afford to pay  (good intentions for us to do chores don't equal adequate time when we are working). My Mother liked gift certificates for her hairdresser, my Father liked a book of pre-paid tickets for the car wash, they don't need trinkets, clothes they don't like & hassle the exchange or hang them in the closet with the ones from last year and the year before that. What the old folks need is us, their family to give of their time with them as we quickly learn the hard way that "forever" won't be as long as we thought it was.......  
Dec 18, 2012 2:38PM

Last year, I purchased a full service manicure and pedicure for my 85 year old grandmother.  She had a hard time trimming her toenails and painting her fingernails after her stroke, and she LOVED it.  She felt pampered and pretty.   Other previous Christmas presents included tickets for the two of us to see a local play and tickets to see a gospel concert.  None of these things cost more than $30 to $50, and we made such good memories.  Since another relative now does her nails and she is no longer physically able to go to shows and concerts, this year I chose a pretty watch with numbers that were easy for her to see. She has always loved sparkly watches, and she takes great pride in always looking fashionable.  I think the key is making sure you spend time with the elders in your life to know what would really be valued.  They want your time and attention more than a bunch of useless stuff.

Dec 19, 2012 10:20PM
These are great suggestions!

We did the living history one and for the next year printed up copies for each of the grand-kids for her to give out.

Another present we gave was a super luxurious bath mat.  I think the in-laws thought it was a bit odd, but DH's grandma is still using it and she liked it.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.