Consumables trump stuff when buying gifts for luminaries

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Gifts for friends and relatives in their bonus years – not "seniors" or "elders" or "oldsters" but what we call "luminaries" – can be a special challenge during a gift-giving holiday season like Christmas.  

Most luminaries are downsizing from a larger home to a smaller home or condo – or to a small apartment in a continuing care community.  If they are not downsizing, they are likely to be de-cluttering after years of raising children and accumulating stuff –  from old lacrosse sticks and long-forgotten swimming medals to mildewed Halloween costumes and tarnished tennis trophies (especially from the days when everyone was a "winner" just for participating).

Now that Christmas is near, what in the world can you give an aging parent, friend or neighbor – something that won't add to the clutter or find its way to the re-gifting bin so it can be given to someone else on another day.

My answer to that: Give "experiences" rather than stuff.  Most people in their bonus years already have enough stuff.  They are getting rid of stuff.  The only time you should give a luminary stuff is when they drop a hint about something they covet – especially "renewables" such as clothing or "replacements" such as a casserole dish broken at Thanksgiving or new tires for the car.  

I learned about gifting "experiences" 30 years ago – from my father-in-law, Bernie Waldkirch, a delightful guy who seemed to have everything.  Bernie was a physician who worked late into his bonus years.  He was content with reading, visiting friends, hunting, and having his family around.  "Bernie," I said, "I have no idea what to get you for Christmas."  

Bernie responded quickly, "Not a problem," he said.  "Just get me a consumable – and one is enough."  

Consumables.  I had to think about that for a minute – and then I thought, "Wow!  That opens up a whole new world of gifting."  

Bernie loved seven-year old Wisconsin cheddar cheese, so now I could get him cheese, which would surely bring a huge smile to his face.  

He was a hunter, so I could get him shells for his shotgun and some Purina ProPlan for Sniffer, his hunting dog.   

Bernie loved orange marmalade, so now we could buy him a crock of Hartley's Olde English Thick Cut Marmalade, which he would position squarely in the middle of the kitchen table, properly placed for the morning breakfast.

Once he introduced us to the new idea of gifting "consumables,” it sparked our imagination and brought new delight to Christmas shopping for luminaries – and gifting for birthdays and other special occasions.

Consumables, to my way of thinking, are a step up from "expressions" – e.g., flowers ("Say it with flowers") or greeting cards ("When you care enough to send the very best").  I say "step up" because consumables and other experience gifts require a little more imagination.  Examples:

Think of a subscription to a favorite newspaper or magazine – such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist or National Geographic – or the Annapolis Capital. These are all experience gifts.  I would also suggest a good book, but my wife frowns on that.  It's her view that books, once read and not given away, quickly turn into stuff.

Think electronics, such as a year's subscription to one or more premium channels on cable TV – such as HBO or the History Channel – or an iTunes debit card so that those in their bonus years can buy apps for their iPad or attend "how-to" sessions at the Apple store or the Samsung "help bar" at Best Buy because they want to learn how to work their smart phone or integrate it with their TV or their home sound system.

Think bigger with some up-budget examples: The gift of an airline ticket to older parents so they can come visit their grandkids.  

Think digital: What about a smartphone, iPad or Kindle.  These may seem like stuff to some but they serve as an on-ramp to a digital world of many new experiences – games, reading newspapers, streaming movies, watching old TV programs, the Khan Academy for learning, digital photography, navigation, studying the stars, Skype – you name it.    Also, an iPad or Kindle can help with de-cluttering by replacing space-hogging books and dust-collecting encyclopedias with space-saving digital apps.

Younger ones can also gift experiences.  Example: A large family we know – with nine adult children – would gather on mom's birthday.  But with so many well-wishers, quality time with mom was difficult.  So, they decided instead to spread the birthday visits throughout the year – one family per month.  

Another adult child gives elderly parents "time vouchers" that can be used for raking the yard, cleaning the basement, washing windows and other services that senior parents value but would never ask for – including personal services gifts such as a trip to the hair salon, the local spa or another indulgence that will be appreciated.

When all is said and done the experience gift trumps all the others, offering an expanded world of gifting to luminaries that is refreshing to explore.  The greatest experience of all – and the greatest gift we can give – is the gift of unconditional love, acceptance, appreciation and support.   The ancient scriptures admonish us to "honor your father and your mother."  Honor and love are often expressed by deeds of expression and engagement, not stuff, whatever the season.  

To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran, "Gifts are love made visible."

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