The most valuable gift for a caregiver is one you can't buy in a store

Your time can be more valuable than any glitzy gift. (Getty Images)

By Julie Keon, special to Yahoo Canada*

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice or another of the more than 30 holidays celebrated between November and January, gift giving and receiving is a part of this time of year. If you know or love a family caregiver, you may wonder what kind of gift they would most appreciate. Family caregivers are those caring for a child, spouse or parent due to disability, aging or some other chronic health condition. According to Statistics Canada, more than 8 million Canadians provide long-term, extraordinary care to a loved one, which often involves a forced leave from work and tremendous financial, psychological and physical stress.

As I pondered this gift giving list, I realized that the most valuable gift we can give to the caregiver is really quite simple and one that doesn’t cost a lot of money. The problem is you won’t find this gift in a department store or online. Although it can be hard to find, it will be the most memorable, practical and thoughtful gift the caregiver will receive. An added bonus of this gift is the freedom to be creative and the added benefits to not only the recipient but to the giver, as well.

Of course, I am speaking about the gift of time. As a mother to a child with medical fragility, I can say, without a doubt, that this gift of time given by countless people to us over the years has been invaluable. Knowing that most people have a shortage of time and yet choose to set some aside for you, makes this selfless gift even more appreciated. In the early years, when our daughter was very sick, this gift stands apart from anything else we received. I remember a group of women from a local church, banding together to take turns bringing us a meal every Wednesday afternoon for several months. A friend dropped by one particularly soul crushing day and gently encouraged me to sit while she rubbed my feet and listened to my worries and frustrations. I will guarantee that if you can find this unique gift of time and figure out how best to use it, your gift will be remembered for years to come.

The first step is to be clear as to how much time you can spare. Once you decide on that, think about what skills you have that could be best shared with the recipient. The tricky part about giving the gift of time is that it does not come in a beautifully wrapped box and so it is easier for the recipient to refuse. They might protest, telling you that you it isn’t necessary or that they are fine and can handle things.

Caregivers are some of the most resilient people I know and so this reluctance is to be expected.

To avoid this, you may need to get creative in how you give the gift. You could buy a card with a clock on it and write what you plan to do with the gift of time you are giving. Place the card in a small box and wrap it up. This physical manifestation of the gift of time makes it more challenging for the recipient to dismiss it. You can also make up coupons with a selection of gifts written on them. Whatever you do, do not, off-handedly, tell the caregiver that you want to give them the gift of time and for them to let you know what you can do. Caregivers are notoriously self-sufficient and incredibly strong. The chances of them calling you and asking you to bring a meal, for example, is about 0 per cent.

Once you have figured out how much time you have to give, you need to get specific as to what you can offer in this precious time. The possibilities are endless and are only limited by the extent of your creativity. Think about your skills and talents and then see if you can match them to what would be most helpful to the caregiver. I have compiled a list to help you get started and hopefully inspire you!

Your gift of time can be used for the following:

Respite

This idea takes more time than the others however it is invaluable. Spending time with the caregiver to learn how to care and support their loved one even for short periods of time is perhaps the greatest gift of all. Caregiving can be painfully isolating. The knowledge that you are the only one who can provide care is incredibly stressful. What if the caregiver gets sick and is unable to care for their loved one? Knowing that there is another person in their community who can take over at times, even briefly, is a tremendous comfort. The family member may be at home or in a long term care facility. Spending time with them and understanding what is involved in their care opens up the doors of respite. For loved ones in a long term care facility or even in hospice, your presence during mealtime and throughout the day could allow the primary caregiver to have a day to themselves. Imagine being able to spend an hour or two with the caregiver’s loved one, allowing the caregiver to indulge in some blessed sleep knowing that their loved one is in your capable hands. The gift of a break from the unrelenting stress of caregiving is priceless. Of course, sometimes the care required exceeds the abilities of the gift giver and so the following gift ideas can be used in its place.

Christmas/Holiday Baking

When you are a full time caregiver, it can be depressing to be unable to take part in the festivities and preparations of the holiday season. As much as you want to do some holiday baking, there just isn’t the time or energy. Find out what the caregiver’s favourites are and even ask them for their recipes. You can bake in their home or bake up some favourites in your home and then deliver them. Now when family or friends come to visit over the holidays, they have some sweet treats to serve. For someone who once loved to host people in their home, this can make it somewhat doable.

Shopping/Gift Wrapping/Decorating

Perhaps you’re not the best baker, but still wish to help the caregiver in getting ready for the season. If you are tech savvy, assist the caregiver in online shopping — because getting out to the stores might prove to be impossible. If online shopping is not your specialty, find out what presents you could pick up for the caregiver. As an added bonus, offer to help with gift wrapping. If the caregiver wants to look after the gift buying and wrapping, perhaps you can offer to help with putting up a few festive decorations. If a tree with some lights would warm up their space and add some magic to the season, make it happen.

Home Cooked Meals

This is one of the most nourishing gifts you can give. We all need to eat however the exhaustion and mental stress of caregiving can make it hard to eat anything more complicated than toast with peanut butter. With this gift, you do not ‘ask’ if you can bring a meal. Instead you ‘tell’ the caregiver that you are bringing a meal offering two options as to the best day (i.e. Tuesday or Friday evening?). This simplifies things for the caregiver and prevents them from saying, “You don’t have to do that.” Find out if there are any food allergies or dislikes and make a meal that you know will be enjoyed by all. Adding a bottle of wine (if you know the recipient consumes alcohol) is a nice added touch. Bringing a ready-made dinner to a family who is dealing with above-normal caregiving is more valuable than gold (or frankincense or myrrh).

Running Errands

When you are caring for someone in your home, it can be daunting to try to figure out how you will get out to pick up medications at the pharmacy, gather your mail, or stock up on groceries. Offering to do this, although seemingly simple, can take a massive weight off of the caregiver. Perhaps they have some professional, in- home help. If you were to take over these errands, the caregiver could spend a couple of hours when their loved one is being cared for by doing something they enjoy like reading, taking a long, uninterrupted bath or going for a leisurely walk outside. Sit down with them and make a list of all of the errands you can do on their behalf. This is a “kill two birds with one stone” type of gift. By relieving the burden of running errands, the caregiver gets to spend some much needed time recharging.

House Cleaning

The majority of people have little time for cleaning and for caregivers it is fairly low on the priority list. For many people, their mental well-being is directly related to how organized or disorganized their surroundings are. Spending 2-4 hours giving a thorough scrub down to the caregiver’s living space can be one of the biggest stress busters.

Travel Companion/Chauffeur

For some caregivers, getting their loved one to doctor’s appointments and going on outings can be very challenging. Offering to assist your friend or family member on trips to the hospital, clinics or other appointments will give them a sense of relief and will take some of the responsibility off of them. They will be able to grab a bite to eat, use the washroom and focus on information being shared at the appointment if they have an extra set of hands and eyes to help out. Even offering to drive will lessen the stress of navigating city streets and finding parking when sleep deprivation is a common side effect to caregiving.

Laughter

There is nothing like a good, side splitting fit of laughter to unleash a dose of oxytocin into the bloodstream and to relieve one of tension and stress. Maybe you are that one person that has a knack to crack up your caregiver friend or family member. Your gift of time could be used to steal him or her away for an hour or more to just be silly and laugh. This can include going to a movie that you know is bound to bring on the giggles or simply hanging out together and reminiscing about events in your life that make you smile. I have a few dear friends, two sisters and a brother who know how to make me break down into laughter. When life seems grim, a good belly laugh can lighten the load.

These are just a few ideas that come to mind when giving the gift of time. These ideas are not limited to the holiday season. They can be used anytime of the year and for all occasions. Your gift of time can be shared with not only your family and friends who are caregivers but with caregivers in your community. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and offer your time in whatever way would be most beneficial to the caregiver. Your kindness and creativity will not be forgotten.

Do you have ideas on how you can use your gift of time to uplift a caregiver? Are you a caregiver? What are the best gifts you have received? Leave them in the comments below!

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Julie Keon’s professional career began in the early 1990s in the field of social work. She always had a strong desire to work with people as they navigated through life and its various challenges. Eventually, certifying as a birth and postpartum doula (DONA International), Julie founded Mother Nurture Childbirth Services in 1998, assisting couples through the childbirth experience and the early weeks at home with a new baby. Seeing the need for specific support, she created a workshop for women who had experienced difficult or traumatic births.

Julie welcomed the opportunity to become a licensed marriage officiant for the province of Ontario in 2012. To expand her services, she graduated as a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant® in early 2013 from the Celebrant Foundation & Institute with a focus on funeral and end-of-life celebrations. She specializes in the creation and implementation of ceremonies to mark life’s transitions from the start of life to the end of life and everything in between.

Julie published her book “What I Would Tell You~ One Mother’s Adventure with Medical Fragility” in May 2015. She released a revised and expanded edition in December 2017.   

Julie is a graduate of and now teaches for the Beyond Yonder Virtual School for Community Deathcaring in Canada. In 2017, she created Ready or Not~ Preparing for the Inevitable, a unique, end-of-life preparation course offered to her community.

Her interests include psychology, health, travel, cooking, writing, and staying vibrant and resilient while holding on to a sense of humour. She shares her life in the Ottawa valley with her husband, Tim, and their daughter, Meredith.

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