A few years back, I got an email from someone who worked for a website that provides resources for seniors. She asked me to write a short article on holiday gifts for people living with dementia.
She suggested that perhaps I could make a list of items, maybe with links to purchase those items, and describe why those items would make good gifts for those with dementia.
When I received the invite, I was feeling overwhelmed, so I declined citing my busy schedule. I also have a firm rule about not promoting certain products and services. That’s out of my comfort zone. (I’ve been approached many times about mentioning products in my blog…and I just can’t enter that realm.)
However, there was another reason the project didn’t appeal to me…writing an article with specific gift suggestions for those living with dementia implied that those living with dementia want the same gifts.
I frequently remind myself and others that people with dementia don’t share a brain.
Once I told a group of people that individuals living with dementia don’t like to be called “honey” or “sweetie.” A few weeks later, I met a woman with Alzheimer’s who said she knew the nursing home staff loved her because they were always calling her “sweetie.”
My statement had been proven false. Not all people living with dementia dislike being called “sweetie.”
I had done something I try not to do; I had made a blanket statement about people with dementia. While I don’t recommend we make calling those with dementia “sweetie” our protocol, I can’t speak for all people with dementia. I do not know the likes and dislikes of every single person with dementia.
To assume these individuals are alike denies that they are diverse humans who have lived interesting and rich lives. They’ve been impacted by genetic, familial, and societal factors since before birth. They have been impacted by dementia, of course, but dementia doesn’t negate the impact of other factors.
I should also add that a person with dementia doesn’t speak for all people with dementia. If one person with dementia tells me that they don’t enjoy live sports because they are too anxiety-provoking, I shouldn’t assume that all people with dementia avoid sporting events. If one person with dementia tells me that they prefer to not be hugged, I shouldn’t assume that all people with dementia will be upset by a hug.
People with dementia are just as different from each other as people without dementia are from each other.
Different backgrounds. Different religions. Different political views. Different hobbies.
So what do you get someone with dementia for Christmas?
I know someone with dementia who ran a half marathon in the spring. I know another person with dementia who gets up every morning at 5 am to go to work at a local bakery. I recently met a guy with dementia who spends his time traveling around with his wife in an RV. And then there’s a woman with dementia at a local nursing home who is now in hospice.
I know people with dementia who are in their 40’s. I know people with dementia who are centenarians.
People with dementia live at home with their families, alone, in memory care communities, in senior apartments, in nursing homes.
How do I write a top ten list of gifts for a group this diverse?
And how do I suggest gifts for people I’ve never met?
Dementia is an umbrella term. Under this umbrella, we have diagnoses like Alzheimer’s, Lewy-Body dementia, Parkinson’s disease with dementia, frontotemporal degeneration, and vascular dementia. Dementia itself isn’t actually a diagnosis. It’s a constellation of symptoms involving deterioration of the brain.
So what Christmas gifts do you buy for someone who has a condition involving deterioration of the brain?
Let’s talk about a different medical condition. For the sake of discussion, let’s talk about anxiety. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder about 20 years ago, so I decided to do a web search to see what gifts are recommended for those with anxiety. After all, these should be things I want for Christmas, right? Maybe I can find some stuff to put on my Amazon wish list.
Here’s what I found:
An assortment of soothing teas. (I hate tea. I think it smells like urine.)
Dark chocolate. (I can’t say I don’t like dark chocolate. But if you know me, you know I try to keep sweets and candy out of our house.)
Cuddly plush toys. (If you give me a cuddly plush toy, I will give you a funny look. What exactly am I supposed to do with this stuffed tiger?)
A poster that says “F*ck Anxiety.” (To be fair, I don’t hate this. But I don’t know where I’d hang it.)
A self-help book on reducing anxiety. (I might actually be angry on this one. So you know what I need to do to cure my anxiety? So you’ve got all the answers?)
Therapy sessions. (Oh my goodness. Don’t you dare even try this. I’m picturing a group of friends at a holiday party saying, “We all went in together and made you an appointment with a psychologist!” No. Just no.)
Gift certificates for massage. (Okay. Yes. This is right on. Please buy me this for Christmas, everyone.)
Lists of this type imply that: 1) It’s your job as a gift buyer to help me me cure/treat my medical condition (it’s not), and 2) You should choose a gift related to my medical condition rather than choosing a gift based on what you know about me as a human being.
Since I was asked to write an article about gifts for those with dementia, I assumed that other people had written similar articles. I googled, and I was right.
There are quite a few suggestions for gifts for dementia patients…and I have a problem with that terminology. You don’t buy a gift for a patient. You buy a gift for a person. And a person’s diagnosis should not be the primary factor in what you buy that person.
Nevertheless, the internet suggests the following gifts for people with dementia: Classic movies, CDs of favorite oldies music, shoes with velcro ties, sweatsuits, dolls, fluffy stuffed animals, large clocks, giant calendars, location devices for someone who wanders, and automatic medication dispensers.
I’m just going to go out an a limb here and say that an automatic medication dispenser is not a good gift for anyone at any time. If someone needs one, buy it for them. Don’t count it as a gift. You might get the same response a friend of mine got when he bought his wife a Swiffer mop for her birthday.
As for the location device….Ugh. Can you imagine being excited to open gifts and realizing you’ve been given a tool so your family can track you? Think about that for a minute.
Oh, I’m so grateful you gave me this gift because you don’t think I’m capable of being responsible for myself. And now you’ll know where I am ALL the time? Merry Christmas to me!
Many people with dementia don’t like the idea of being tracked. And I can’t blame them.
If it’s tool that might be helpful, buy and buy it now. Don’t wait until Christmas. Trust me–it doesn’t count as a gift.
I know a lot of people with dementia who do not wear sweatsuits. I know plenty of people with dementia who would take those velcro shoes straight to Goodwill. I also have a lot of friends with dementia who no longer have a CD player because they use their iPhone or computer to play music.
Making a list of gifts for people with dementia implies that people with dementia are similar and have similar wants and needs.
A person’s medical diagnosis should not define an appropriate gift. We don’t buy gifts for patients. We buy gifts for people.