Illustration by Mary Kurnick Maass
If people you love are in a nursing home or an assisted living
facility, as in my case, you may face this dilemma: How can I make
my visits a little more special? What small thing can I bring him
or her that would provide a diversion from the nursing home routine?
I have brought my mother, my sister, my father-in-law
and my cousin store-bought gifts for special holidays or birthdays,
but I wanted a different solution, one that would give these four
special people in my life something stimulating to occupy them after
I had left.
The germ of an idea came on the day I brought my sister
a copy of the announcement of my son’s promotion at his job, along
with his new business card. When I walked into her room at the nursing
home, Betty eyed the envelope I carried in my hand with obvious
anticipation. She was curious to find out what it was. Betty was
delighted to be able to share in her nephew’s good news.
On my drive home that day, I contemplated the fact that
many of the snippets of everyday living that flood our lives are
absent in nursing home surroundings or in an assisted living facility.
I decided to size up the prosaic items that cross my everyday path
to determine if they might be of interest to one of my nursing home
Thus, my idea was born.
On the top shelf of my hall closet is a gaily-colored
bag dubbed by my grandchildren “Grandma’s Goody Bag.” This holds
small treats to give to the kids when they go home from a visit
to my house. It occurred to me: Why not make goody bags for my older
relatives who no longer have homes of their own? I decided to collect
some of the minutiae of my daily life to help bring the outside
world to my family members in nursing homes.
In my laundry room, I have a large worktable. On the
corner of that table, I keep manila envelopes marked with the names
of my nursing home family. As the days and weeks go by, I tuck into
these envelopes any trifle that I think will interest that special
person. Then I take these goody bags along on my next visit. What
amazes me is the number of items passing through my home that hold
interest for my loved ones.
The following are some of the things I have stuffed
into my goody bags that hit the mark with my relatives in nursing
homes. None of these things cost any money and my loved ones have
responded enthusiastically to them.
E-mail Jokes or Anecdotes
Did you ever stop to think that many nursing home
residents have probably never seen an e-mail?
I print some of the funniest ones that pass through
my computer to share with my relatives. Once I considered these
types of e-mails a nuisance. Now I eagerly scan them in search of
some little nugget appropriate to share.
Those catalogs that clutter your mailbox every
month can also make excellent goody bag stuffers.
Choose one or two colorful ones that would be fun for
your relative to browse through, such as furniture or tool catalogs.
They’re unlikely to buy an item from the catalogues, but they will
still enjoy browsing.
Musical Event Brochures
Your relative may be a fan of country music, jazz,
golden oldies or barbershop quartets. Any ad or brochure you can
lay your hands on which advertises his or her particular interest—preferably
one displaying good-sized colorful pictures—can be stashed in your
This way they can still keep up with their favorite
singer or musical act.
I brought a 75-year-old family group photograph on a visit to my
cousin Bea—who suffers from Alzheimer’s—in a lovely assisted living
She can’t remember what she did yesterday, but she was
able to find herself in this wonderful old picture and recall that
the dress she wore that day was brown velvet trimmed with a band
of fur. One of Bea’s shoes, she remembered ruefully, had a little
smudge of dirt on the toe.
Booklets of Inspirational Verse
Every two months I receive in the mail a small
booklet of inspirational verses illustrated with charming pictures.
Sent to me by the Salesian Missions, one of these booklets
makes a fine addition to a goody bag. My relative, who is president
of the residents’ council at her nursing home, often uses the verses
as opening and closing prayers during their monthly meetings.
While the cooking in retirement homes can be quite
good, there is nothing like homemade cookies or cake. I like to
add two or three of my homemade oatmeal cookies or one small square
of graham cracker cake to a goody bag, if I am certain my relative
is allowed sweets.
One or two herbal tea bags of a favorite special blend
complement the treat nicely.
A business card may seem like a strange item to
take to a nursing home patient.
I found, however, that my sons’ business cards made
an impressive point of pride for their grandmother, and pride can
be a rarity in the nursing home environment.
Articles and pictures from the local newspaper,
or a national publication, are always a nice inclusion as long as
they are upbeat and pertinent to a particular interest of your loved
No “downers” allowed!
My local public library has a magazine exchange
table. Patrons are encouraged to donate their recent magazines and
take home any others they like.
I always scan the table to see if there is a magazine
that caters to the fancy of one of my nursing home friends. For
example, one relative loves to read anything about the late Jackie
Kennedy or the British royal family.
Church Bulletin or Newsletter
The weekly bulletin or monthly newsletter from
your loved one’s home parish is a nice connection to the community
he or she was once involved in.
Also, you could consider bringing the diocesan newspaper
from that community.
Reprints of Articles
Since I am a freelance writer, I make photocopies
of published articles I have written to share with my relatives.
Better still is having enough copies of the original
magazine so I can present the entire publication.
Did your loved one have a hobby or interest, such
as model trains or antique dolls, that you could research on the
An article on his or her old hobby makes a thoughtful
addition to the goody bag.
A particular treasure is artwork or a story created
by one of the grandchildren.
On your next visit, you’re sure to find that picture
or story proudly displayed on the grandparent’s bulletin board.
Maybe your loved one had a favorite cartoon or
If you notice one that is especially clever, clip it
and add it to the stash in your goody bag.
I am fortunate in that my four family members in nursing homes
are all ambulatory and in reasonably good health. Yes, one is in
the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Another is obsessive-compulsive
and is tube-fed. The other two are elderly and frail. But all display
a positive attitude, have good eyesight and continue to have a capacity
for enjoying small things.
Your own nursing home resident may be bedridden or use
a wheelchair. His or her mental capacities may not be what they
were. Your goody bags should be tailor-made to suit the individual
limitations of your particular family member. You will know best
what stimulates his or her interests.
So the next time you visit your nursing home loved ones,
don’t go empty-handed. Remember your goody bag, and watch their
eyes brighten in anticipation!