By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

February is upon us, the holidays are past, and as we anticipate that gradual transition from winter to spring, we're prompted to reflect on the holidays of 2011 one last time.

The holiday season in a nursing home brings many things-literally. Formerly empyty windowsills are festooned with poinsettia and all manner of miniature Christmas trees. Every horizontal surface seems to hold yet another stuffed animal, knick-knack, or elaborately framed picture of loved ones (many electronic, with an ever-changing series of images). One is urged to sample almost every type of candy and cookie, and assorted homemade treats (some looking and smelling a bit past their prime). New clothes are proudly displayed and worn-everything from the practical (sensible shoes with Velcro closures) to those that can only be described as what-were-they-thinking (form-fitting satins studded with sequins and fake jewels). Greeting cards and letters must be read and re-read aloud, great-grandchildren's artwork exclaimed over, loved ones' generosity and good taste fulsomely praised. This is where the fun enters in (and the cutthroat competitiveness, but that's another matter): Anyone who thinks one-upsmanship fades with age has never spent time in a nursing home.

Fast-forward to mid-January, and you start to notice changes. Most of the plants are now dead. China figurines are either gone or in pieces, heads and limbs arranged neatly on the shelf, awaiting nimble fingers and glue. Even the biggest bottles of cologne are half-empty, having been widely sampled (and occasionally used as room spray). Anything with tiny, hard-to-manipulate parts is now broken, bent, or missing said parts. The sensible shoes and cardigans still look pretty good, while anything delicate that went through the laundry is now a wadded-up tangle tossed in the back of a closet. Stuffed animals tend to have some stains, as do the frilly quilt-and-pillowcase sets. Most of the fancy electronic stuff (including anything with earbuds or headsets) sits unused, gathering dust; cutting-edge cell phones have been replaced with the old standard models.

The residents are generally OK with all this, having gotten pretty Zen about life's comings and goings, but the givers of said gifts are not, and will often fume about ingratitude and 'waste'.

If your philosophy of gifts is focused on the joy afforded the recipient, it's all good-almost everything generates some happiness for the residents, who are glad to know that somebody cared, thought about them, and went to the trouble to get them something. If your goal is more practical-to get someone things that will last long enough to be used for the long term-a more focused strategy is called for. When gifting in the nursing home keep the following principles in mind:

  • This ain't your mother's clothes washer - Facility laundries use very hot water, strong detergents, and bleach. Dry cleaning and hand-laundering services aren't available, so unless you're planning to pay for those services yourself, outside the facility, only purchase machine washable fabrics. Those who need assistance with dressing (and those whose job it is to dress them) appreciate garments with some stretch and 'give' in the fabric and good, solid construction features. When in doubt about what to get, ask the aides.

  • Durability first - Clothes will get stained, so choose fabrics that are easily cleaned and patterns that camouflage the permanent impact of incidents and accidents. Such things are inevitable in nursing homes.

  • Minimal-care gifts are best - Staff are busy, and they're generally not thrilled about caring for yet another living thing. Watering a cactus once a week is one thing, maintaining an orchid quite another. Unless your gift plant comes with gardening services, keep it low-maintenance.

  • Simplicity is crucial - Equipment your loved one can't operate is not going to be used. Before you invest in the latest, greatest gadgetry, make sure it's within their grasp-physically, perceptually and cognitively. (Can they see it, hold it, and figure out how to use it?)

  • Memories are always cherished - When everything else is long gone, broken, discarded, or forgotten, those photos are still there.


Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, published by Newmarket Press. The second edition, revised and updated, was recently released. Here's the link: