Holiday Gifts Made Easier

I recently wrote about the challenges of hosting holiday gatherings, preparing big meals, and whether and how much to decorate your home. Not everyone who lives with pain can manage those tasks, but most of us still want to give holiday gifts. Here, I offer my advice on deciding whom to give to, how much to spend, what to buy, and how and where to shop.

Should I give a gift?

Budgeting for the holidays is a good place to start. Gifts are just one expense of the season, so it’s important to decide how much you want to spend on the holidays overall. Then you can determine what amount to devote to gifts. Next, decide who will be on your list and how much you want to spend on each gift or person. Be realistic and work to stay within your budget.

In lots of families and friendships, gifts are expected and presented almost automatically, but it’s important to acknowledge that gift giving is a decision and can be negotiable. If your family has grown recently, it might be time to make different decisions regarding who will give and get gifts. While it is fun to give to everyone, it may be important to discuss and re-evaluate your traditions and redefine who gets gifts from whom at the holidays.

For example, you can start a gift exchange in which each family member, friend, or co-worker gets and gives only one gift. Be sure to set a limit on the cost of the gifts. A gift that’s even easier to give is a check, cash, or a gift card to a favorite store. To add some fun, you can hide the envelope in the Christmas tree or somewhere in your home. This might also be a good idea if you’re trying to make a new gift-giving tradition more acceptable to the recipient.

Another option is to give the gift of an experience: tickets to a play, sporting event, ballet performance, concert, or other event. As a bonus, you could pay for the gas, tolls, or parking, too. The event can be during the holiday season or later. And if it’s expensive and doesn’t fit your budget, ask another family member or friend to share the cost so you can give the gift together.

Of course, gifts can come in many shapes and forms. After all, not everyone needs or wants to receive a gift that costs money. Here are ideas for alternatives:

– donate to the recipient’s favorite charity;

– visit a friend or relative;

– provide physical help (sort a closet, paint a room, decorate for the holidays, shovel snow, or rake leaves);

– invite a friend to your home for lunch or to play a game such as Scrabble or rummy;

– take someone who has limited mobility to a holiday party; or

– make an album of great family pictures.

Choosing the perfect gift

When coming up with gift ideas, try to think of items that would be interesting to the recipient, ones that would be helpful, items that he or she has asked for, items that a friend or relative suggests, and items that are easy to get.

Knowing the person well makes it easier to choose a gift. Think of his or her interests, needs, likes, dislikes, jobs, hobbies, and roles in life. Is he or she a reader, traveler, or history buff? Keep in mind his or her limitations. For instance, a young mom might love a massage but might need help with babysitting. Someone who travels all week might prefer a stay-at-home activity such as a basket of movie DVDs, popcorn and pretzel treats, and a warm blanket.

Items that someone has asked for may be easy to obtain, or they can be the most difficult. For example, with clothing, you’ll need to know the size, color, make, and the product name, adding to the challenge.

If you’re shopping for a person who lives with pain, consider gifts that ease everyday activities:

– long-handled sponges;

– jar openers;

– button hooks;

– sock aids; and

– long-handled clippers or garden pruners.

Hundreds of items can be found in catalogs or online at and

Products that help manage pain are another option. These might be items you notice your recipient might appreciate or need or items that you have tried and found helpful.

– Pillows. Some help a person sleep using proper body alignment or sit propped in bed more comfortably for reading or watching TV.

– Cold packs. They can be kept in the freezer and used following an injury or aggressive activity.

– Hot packs. They also help ease pain and promote healing.

– Rubbing lotions. Products that contain aspirin or capsaicin may help relieve pain.

Physical activity can also reduce pain. A membership at a YMCA or fitness club that offers exercise classes for people with arthritis can help. Also consider tai chi or yoga classes, a DVD of gentle at-home exercise programs or relaxation techniques, and books about how to get moving slowly, surely, and safely. (I recommend The Arthritis Helpbook by Kate Lorig, check the price here!)

Other good choices are books on healthy eating, a knife designed for people with arthritis, or an appliance for making smoothies. (Think twice before buying a self-help or weight-loss book.) If your list includes someone who receives physical therapy and needs transportation help, offer to drive him or her to appointments. Or volunteer to walk with him or her once or twice a week. For people who exercise at home, you can purchase elastic bands, squeegee balls, small weights, a pedal exerciser, or workout clothes.

Shopping choices

If you want to inspect merchandise before buying or if you simply like to make an outing out of shopping, then traditional shopping is for you. Plan ahead to make the trip more productive. Call stores ahead of time to make sure they carry the items you want. This saves time and effort, prevents fatigue and pain, and, of course, avoids disappointment. If you are a person in pain, each step of shopping without experiencing or increasing pain will be rewarding.

When coming up with gift ideas, try to think of items that are easy to find or that you can buy at a place where you will already be shopping. If you’re buying gift cards, you can find them for many restaurants and other stores at large retailers or grocers. Before leaving home, make sure to have a complete shopping list that includes the stores you will be going to. If necessary, plan your route ahead of time.

Where to shop

When you’re planning where to shop, consider the following issues.

– Does the store have convenient parking? Being able to park close to a store makes shopping a little easier.

– How crowded are the aisles likely to be? Big aisles make shopping easier. Shopping during less busy times of the day also helps.

– Does the store have a home-delivery service or provide help with carrying packages back to your car? Small, local stores may be less crowded than larger chains, and they may offer more services.

Malls may be enticing because they have so many stores to choose from. However, the hard floors may add to the pain of sore joints and muscles, and the crowds can be overwhelming. You may want to ask a friend or relative to go with you. Always remember to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes. Wear a waist pack or carry a pocketbook with a long shoulder strap placed across your body, and carry only what you need. This frees up both arms and helps to reduce pain and fatigue.

Plan where you will shop at the mall, and remember to pace yourself by shopping a little, then resting a little. Have lunch or a snack halfway through the trip, and use those benches for a break every hour or so. All-day shopping trips may be too exhausting and painful, so shop for shorter periods. Choose a time to shop when you are the least stiff and the most energetic. Stop shopping before you get tired. Plan to rest before a shopping day and afterward as well. Do chores at home on days when you are not shopping.

Some people who experience muscle and joint aches and pains choose to park far away from stores, taking the opportunity to get extra exercise. If you have trouble walking long distances and need to park near the store, you may want to apply for handicapped license plates or a handicapped parking permit.

Try to shop when the stores are less busy. Not only will there be fewer shoppers to contend with in the aisles, but you may also get better service from the staff. Shorter lines mean less time spent in the stores and therefore less fatigue. Remember that holiday shopping can be done all year long. Spreading your gift buying over a year can help you avoid throngs of last-minute shoppers.

You may be able to find what you’re looking for without leaving home. Catalogs, shop-at-home services, and the Internet are popular and efficient ways to shop. Your purchases are shipped to you, and you can often choose rush delivery (usually for an extra fee). Returning items is usually easy.

Online shopping

In the early years of the Internet, people worried that purchases online would not go through, that products would not arrive on time, and that if the item needed to be returned, the process would be difficult. These issues have all but disappeared. If you’re not adept at making online purchases, here is a primer.

Start by using a search engine to look for a specific product. When the results are listed, more than six or eight retailers may be retrieved, offering multiple options for where to buy the product and for how much. Larger retailers such as Amazon are known for low prices and quick delivery. Smaller companies may offer personalized help in picking items and understanding how they work. Some sites offer discounts using codes found in catalogs and other ads. They may also offer wrapping services and event cards with personalized notes.

Many large retailers allow you to order online and pick up items at your local store. Free delivery may be offered on all orders or others costing a certain amount. Amazon is particularly reliable when you’re placing last-minute orders at the holidays. Most sites also offer shipment tracking so you can learn when your orders are expected to arrive.

Return policies vary. Be sure to check a company’s return policy before making a purchase. Some personal products are not returnable. Call the company if a product is broken or damaged when you receive it. Generally you have to pay for returning a product unless it is defective or was damaged upon arrival.

Many retailers with physical stores also sell products online or through electronic catalogs sent to your email address or paper catalogs sent to your home. A paper catalogue can be used to call in orders. You’ll need a credit or debit card or a PayPal account to pay for online or catalog purchases. Online shopping has become easier, and the companies that offer the service are more accountable. Best of all, it can be a pain-free alternative to spending a day at a mall.

Want to learn more about navigating the holidays with chronic pain? Read “Managing the Holidays With Chronic Pain” and “Managing Stress at the Holidays.”

Wendy McBrair has spent 35 years as a health-care professional in rheumatology, orthopedics, and osteoporosis, specializing in patient and community service, patient education, and advocacy.

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