Gifts That Pay Off: How to buy gifts for the hardest people to shop for — your parents

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As Catherine Collinson’s octogenarian father and stepmother downsized from a 4,000-square-foot home to a 1,400-square-foot, single-story home in a retirement community, their message to the rest of the family was clear: No more stuff, unless it’s functional or of great sentimental value.

“In the end, they were able to keep their most sentimental items for themselves or within the family — but the process of downsizing was an ordeal,” Collinson said. While they love their new home, she added, “they just don’t have much space for amassing a lot of new things.”

When her dad visited a few weeks ago, Collinson, her brother and her sister-in-law opted for a more personal gesture: bringing him to an Antarctic dinosaurs exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He had devoted his career as a geologist to Antarctic research.

“Our super-fun day at the museum was an opportunity for him to relive his adventures and share the stories behind the stories of the discoveries on display — and it was an opportunity for my family to learn more about his life and work,” said Collinson, the CEO and president of the nonprofit Transamerica Institute and Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

“Get gifts that would give pleasure. If your parent has some kind of a disability and you want to get something like a grabber tool, get it for them — but don’t make it your holiday gift.”

Karl Pillemer, Cornell University gerontology professor

Gift ideas for parents can prove particularly difficult — in part because they often buy themselves whatever they want. “This is not true for everyone, but one reason why it may be hard to shop for parents is the typical difference in resources: Parents likely have more ability to buy what they want than their offspring do,” said Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontology professor.

But the task is not impossible. Here’s how to get your parents something of real value that will endure well beyond the holiday season.

Favor long-term value over the surprise factor

Sometimes people want to give an exciting or unexpected gift, but in the end it might not demonstrate an understanding of the recipient’s taste, whether the gift would fit into his or her life, or whether the item offers long-term value, Pillemer said.

Think back to items or experiences in which your parents have already expressed interest. You might even buy a gift that rekindles a long-lost passion they abandoned years ago, like a camera for a one-time amateur photographer.

Don’t buy your elderly parents a reminder of their age

Pillemer urges adult children to “ignore virtually every gift” they might find on holiday gift lists for elderly parents, such as grabber tools, jar openers and Roombas. Gifts that appear specifically geared toward people’s advanced age can simply make them more depressed, he said.

Instead, Pillemer said, “get gifts that would give pleasure.” “If your parent has some kind of a disability and you want to get something like that, get it for them — but don’t make it your holiday gift,” he said.

Give the gift of time

You could gift time with yourself: Most parents love being a part of our lives, but they may be on a fixed income in retirement, Collinson said. A plane ticket for them to visit you would be a meaningful gift, she said.

Do something for your parents that they might lack the time or know-how to easily do for themselves, said Pillemer. For instance, digitizing old family photos would be an outstanding gift, he said.

Or, if your parents are in the market for a financial planner or advisor, vet one for them, Collinson said — performing due diligence on candidates’ reputations, fee structures and compatibility with your parents’ financial situation.

“People in this generation are busy, and often what they’d really need is some time affluence,” Laurie Santos, a Yale University psychology professor, said in an email. “Gift cards to sites like TaskRabbit allow people to hire folks to help on projects. Even a yard care or cooking service can help people spare a few extra hours, which goes a long way toward improving our well-being.”

Help them become lifelong learners

Some research suggests that learning new skills can yield cognitive benefits for older adults. If your retired mother has embarked on a memoir-writing endeavor, can you send her to a writers’ workshop? And if you know your dad is interested in learning how to play the guitar or tap dance, buy lessons, Pillemer suggested.

You can purchase gift certificates for $50 or more for Road Scholar, an educational travel nonprofit geared mostly toward over-50 adults that offers all-inclusive (if somewhat pricey) programs for solo travelers, couples and grandparents traveling with grandkids. The organization boasts a variety of edifying adventures — think summer camp in the Ozarks, a nature lover’s tour of Costa Rica and a deep dive into the civil-rights movement — in all 50 states and 150 countries.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI) also provide classes for older adults through 124 colleges and universities, with an emphasis placed on affordability, said David Blazevich, the Bernard Osher Foundation’s senior program director. Collinson’s father has taken Osher courses for years at Colorado State University on topics like Photoshop and climate change, and also teaches a class on Antarctica.

OLLI membership is often required and ranges from $16 at some schools to $680 at others; each includes various numbers of courses, lectures, activities and benefits, Blazevich said. “Higher-cost programs offer a range of membership options at lower price points as well,” he said. Course fees range from about $10 for a single-session class at some schools to $265 for longer classes at others.

Get them a tech gift they’ll actually use

Smart video-calling devices make a great gift, Pillemer said, “especially if there are grandchildren involved.” Facebook’s FB, +0.84%   Portal products range in price from $129 to $279.

And while some older folks are reluctant to make the jump from physical books to e-readers, “many of them find it transformative,” Pillemer said. An e-reader allows parents to adjust font size and access a huge range of books, he said — and it can give those in the oldest age group a “newbie-level introduction” to electronic devices, including experience using a virtual keyboard and downloading. A Kindle AMZN, -0.39%   starts at $89.99.

“For an older person with little experience, make part of your gift showing him or her how to use it,” he said.

Help them slow the damaging effects of aging with exercise

“Finding a way to help promote physical activity and exercise among older adults promises to have profound effects on health and quality of life,” said Nathan LeBrasseur, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic and expert with the American Federation for Aging Research. And physical activity doesn’t have to be strenuous to be effective.

Find something that aligns with your parents’ interests and style. If they are exercise-averse, try to match their existing interests with something that would simply get them out of the house (a greenhouse membership for your gardening mom) or require a greater degree of physical activity (dance-based fitness classes for your dad who used to cut a rug), LeBrasseur said.

“A small contribution to a hobby shows you understand the parent: For example, there are few runners who can’t use another top-quality hat or premium socks,” Pillemer said. “You can overcome the money differential with that kind of creativity that conveys warmth and knowledge of the other person.”

Best New Ideas in Money: Gifts That Pay Off

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