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5 Timeless & Inexpensive Gift Ideas for Parents

Harlen Miller, artist and author of “Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty,” said, “Probably the reason we all go so haywire at Christmas time with the endless unrestrained and often silly buying of gifts is that we don’t quite know how to put our love into words.” The Christmas Season, as well as birthdays and anniversaries, are occasions of great joy, as well as frustration, especially when it comes to selecting gifts for the elderly.

While there is a plethora of gift ideas for young children, what-to-buy for parents is especially difficult for a few reasons.

  • Parents often have the financial ability to buy what they want when they want it
  • Past gifts, as well as purchases, have been accumulated for decades – so much, in some cases, that there is little space for storage in their houses
  • Aging has diminished their physical or mental abilities to enjoy active participation or use complicated electronic gadgets
  • Gift givers may lack the time or inspiration to create an unusual gift or experience for their parents

As a card-carrying member of the AARP Generation, I understand the dilemma of my children seeking gifts to please me or my spouse. However, I can also attest that the gifts I’ve treasured the most over the years were not the most expensive, or even available from a store, but were crudely made ashtrays, hand-painted pictures, or special moments of time and togetherness given in love. Simple, often inexpensive gifts that say “I love you” or “I remember the good times” are the ones that will be kept and revisited year after year.

Great Gifts for Parents From Adult Children

1. A Personal Letter from a Child or Grandchild

A handwritten, heartfelt letter from a child or grandchild is always appropriate and becomes more cherished as time goes by. Grammar and misspellings don’t matter; there is no grading and no critic who will review the contents for plot or accuracy. Simply recalling a time that was shared between child and parent, expressing how much enjoyment you felt, and thanking your parent or parents for that memory is enough to make it special.

A letter to your parents showing appreciation for the lessons they taught you, the sacrifices that were made for you, and the dreams they had for you will be saved physically and in the heart. No child is too old to write a parent, nor is any grandchild too young to say “I love you.”

2. A Special Memory

For my birthday, my daughter printed and framed a list of family aphorisms repeated regularly as she grew to an adult. Her gift has hung prominently on my office wall for a decade and will remain there for the rest of my life.

Whenever I look at the hanging, I remember the occasions that prompted each adage, those times when a father was the most important man in a daughter’s life. Her words and thoughtfulness captured on an inexpensive page of colored paper have made this one of the most pleasing gifts I have ever received.

Special Memory Gift

3. Family Photographs, Books, and Movies

Over the years, families collect hundreds of photographs of family members of all ages, snapshots of past birthdays, holidays, vacation trips, and school events. Important occasions, as well as images of neighbors long forgotten, are randomly scattered in picture albums, boxes, drawers, and shelves. Names and dates are rarely notated, so the lack of organization creates a visual chaos and an indecipherable clamor of people, events, and timeline.

As a consequence of this disorganization, elderly parents lose the links to their past, the muddle so confusing and extensive that it discourages viewing. Consider one of the following to brighten your parents’ day:

  • A Family Photo Book. Web services such as Snapfish, Shutterfly, and Mixbook facilitate the compilation of photo collections organized by timeline, special event, or key individuals into book format, creating an instant family heirloom.
  • A Cinematic Treasure. Old home movies shot in Kodak 8mm or Super8 film can be easily converted to a digital format and edited with free video software. Add personal narratives and music to create a unique viewing experience of good times and events.
  • A Unique Memento. The combination of a simple wooden box, an inexpensive wood-burning tool or a wood router, and the decoupage craft can turn a photograph or letter into a unique homemade photo craft that will be appreciated for years.

4. Shared Family Time

Time together is the dearest present a parent can receive. Unfortunately, it can also be the most difficult for a child with his or her own growing family to give.

Distance, frailty, and careers make getting together difficult and irregular, especially with the tendency to believe there will always be future opportunities to be together. Too many children with the best intentions wake up one morning to find the past has gone and parents are no longer with them.

The following occasions are often overlooked as moments to be together:

  • Family Vacations. Sharing a vacation or a weekend is a perfect way to spend time together. Everyone remembers long automobile trips and forced togetherness fondly as they grow older – dump or limit the videos and electronic games for conversation. An added benefit of sharing a vacation with parents – if you are a parent yourself – is having a built-in babysitter for those evenings when you and your spouse have a special evening out.
  • Return to One’s Roots. We are a mobile society, often living hundreds of miles from the places where we were born and grew up. One of the best times I had with my father, who is now deceased, was a three-day automobile trip to visit his hometown of Childress, Texas, and the old farms where he and his cousins had played more than a half-century in the past. His retelling of the events of his childhood and the people he knew even though time has erased their presence was filled with tears, laughter, and melancholy. And the trip was memorable to both of us.
  • Reunions and Special Occasions. As our nation has become more industrialized with all of the benefits of technology, family members have become separated by distance, losing connections with brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as with the shared family lore. The chance to rekindle those bonds is welcomed by old and young alike, just as weddings, graduations, and anniversaries are other opportunities to come together and share a common legacy. Accompany your parents on a trip to see relatives not often seen – you will enjoy the trip, and so will your parents.

5. Technology Assistance

Technology moves at a rapid pace, particularly once you have retired and are not required to be familiar with the latest gadgets or upgrades. Nothing is more frustrating to an older person than not being able to program a DVD player or set an alarm clock. In their lifetimes, they have moved from slide rules to personal computers; from a black and white television to enormous flat screens with hundreds of viewing choices.

Time eventually catches everyone, however, so learning new processes or understanding complicated instructions becomes more difficult. At the same time, technology can be a boon to the elderly with a little help from their children.

Gifts that are especially appreciated include:

  • Programming. Virtually every electronic product requires some programming to use. A cell phone needs to be connected to a communication network, software has to be loaded onto computers, and televisions need to be attached to cable. Even a medical alert system or a home alarm can be beyond the capacity of the elderly. Spend a couple of hours setting up the gadgets that your parents use, and teach them rudimentary skills so they can get more benefits from new technology.
  • Social Networking. As people age, they become less mobile, often limited to their homes and immediate neighborhoods. An inexpensive, minimally configured iPad or Android tablet with Internet access, used or new, can extend their world immensely. Email and a social networking account on a site such as Facebook or Pinterest can stimulate their interest and allow them to keep in touch with family and friends wherever they are located. While loading applications or configuring hardware can be difficult for an older parent, most adults and teenagers can usually decipher the most complicated instructions. Best of all, giving your parents access to such services and programs can make it easier for you to stay in touch with them.

Technology Gadget Assistance

Final Word

Henry Ward Beecher, a clergyman and social reformer in the 1800s, wrote, “We never know the love of a parent till we become parents ourselves.” As a consequence, any gift you give to your mother or father will be appreciated, no matter its cost. Parents know that material products don’t last, while love is eternal. The best gift you will ever give to your parents is yourself.

What other gifts can you suggest for elderly parents?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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