The holiday season is understandably different this year due to COVID-19. Many people have lost loved ones. Many have lost their jobs. Everyone is anxious, and forced to social distance during a time of year when we traditionally come together.
But if you have the means and gift-giving is something that brings you hope and a measure of happiness, there are certain items that may be especially useful and thoughtful this year.
“First, ask yourself, ‘What kind of gift-giver are you?’” suggests Jaimie Meyer, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases expert.
“If you’re the type to be practical and like to get people something they need, which pre-COVID meant new pajamas, ice scrapers, or appliances, this is the year for toilet paper, soap—or even a 'touchless' hand soap dispenser, Purell, Clorox wipes, or cloth face masks,” Dr. Meyer says.
“But, if you’re the type to indulge people with something they love, which pre-COVID meant jewelry, nights out, or sentimental photos, this is the year to help your loved ones comfortably quarantine. Consider gift cards for online shopping, new headphones for binging on Netflix, nail polish for at-home manicures, or sweatpants—the Zoom outfit of choice for most of us,” she says.
Retail stores, Dr. Meyer says, “remain relatively safe for in-person shopping when local regulations are in place, especially if they actually enforce those rules.” If you do go out, plan to shop at times when stores will be less trafficked, wear your mask, keep your distance from other shoppers, and practice good hand hygiene after leaving the store.
“Consider ordering ahead or picking up your items curbside so you can minimize your time indoors. This is not the year to spend hours leisurely strolling the aisles,” Dr. Meyer adds. “If you’re wary of in-person shopping, consider shopping online and kill two birds with one stone by having your gift delivered directly to your loved one.”
As for gift exchanges, they can be done safely, but keep in mind that physical distancing and mask-wearing are essential, Dr. Meyer says. “Consider opening your gifts on Zoom or FaceTime to share in that excitement together,” she says. “Stay safe this holiday season so we can all celebrate the next one together in person.”
Another option, Dr. Meyer says, is to consider forgoing typical gift exchanges altogether and to instead contribute to a worthy cause. “Many people are suffering this year and have lost jobs or are struggling to make ends meet. Donate to your local food pantry or charity of choice on behalf of your gift recipient,” she says.
We talked to several other Yale Medicine experts to ask them for suggestions. We break it down by category to make your "shopping" easier.
Gifts of movement
Christina Allen, MD, chief of Yale Medicine Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation’s Division of Sports Medicine, has plenty of ideas when it comes to gifts that can keep people moving safely this winter.
“For older people, they have these recumbent bicycles, like a pedal cycle, where you can just sit in your chair or recliner and pedal. It’s weighted and sits on the floor,” Dr. Allen says. “This is great if people can’t get outside because it’s too cold or icy.”
Or for those who can brave the cold, another idea is a cramp-on to put on the bottom of a cane for added stability in slippery conditions. Ski poles can work, too. For runners, snow shoes, traction cleats to attach to shoes—or even soccer cleats (pre-treat the leather upper with a waterproof spray) can be useful for trail runs on packed snow, Dr. Allen says.
You may have heard of reusable hand and foot warmers you can stuff in your shoes or gloves, but there are also heated jackets. Dr. Allen says these are quite cozy and “came in very handy when I was a team physician covering night games during cold and foggy San Francisco nights.”
Other thoughts include:
- TheraBands: Those stretchy resistance bands you may use at the physical therapist’s or the gym are useful for a variety of exercises that can be done indoors. If you can’t find them online, you can likely purchase them at a physical therapist’s office, Dr. Allen says. “You can get a lot of resistance from these bands. You can use them with a door handle to work your shoulders, biceps, and triceps—or around the leg of a table for your legs,” she adds.
- Sports gear: If your kids don’t have a soccer ball, football, or basketball (or net), this may be the year to invest as a way to get them moving outside. “A kid can work on his or her soccer skills on their own just kicking a ball around in the backyard. You can also throw a football around with them,” she says. “Or work on any skills in your garage—or get a Nerf hoop for inside.”
Gifts that may help you—and your kids—sleep
Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, a Yale Medicine psychologist, who specializes in helping kids and adults sleep well, has a number of suggestions to help people sleep more soundly, something which has been a struggle during the pandemic, she says.
- Blue light blocking glasses: These glasses, which can be bought over the counter and online, are said to block the blue light emitted from electronic devices such as laptops, phones, and tablets. The trouble with blue light, she explains, is that it is so bright it makes your brain think it’s daytime and disrupts your circadian rhythm. “What’s nice is you don’t have to figure out how to turn down the blue light on your device or put a screen over it if you wear these glasses from dinnertime on,” Schneeberg says.
- Reading tablets: The key, Schneeberg says, is to get one that has a setting similar to a printed book. “You can use the ‘night setting’ [a black background with white letters] on many of these devices,” she says. “What I like about something like a Kindle is that it only offers books, which means that people, especially teens, won’t be distracted by social media apps, news, texting, and so on.”
- Relaxation hacks: Consider gifting a subscription to a meditation app such as Calm, Schneeberg suggests. Or try a weighted eye mask that can be cooled or heated, she adds. Another idea is a two- or three-inch foam mattress topper. “These improve almost any mattress by relieving the pressure points that make your arms fall asleep or that make your joints ache,” she says.
- Boogie board: These writing tablets, which come with a smooth, gliding marker (and which erase at the touch of a button), are an easy, no-mess way to keep a kid who isn’t quite ready to fall asleep occupied in their bed until they are drowsy enough to drop off. “You can keep a basket next to their bed filled with similar items, like picture books or drawing pads, and you can also give a child a bedside reading lamp or book light,” she says.
- Toddler clothing that keeps your active child from crawling out of the crib: “Research shows that children get better sleep when they stay in a crib until they reach age 3,” Schneeberg says. “You can buy sleepwear that makes it hard for them to separate their legs far enough to climb out of a crib. Sleep sacks zipped up the back are one example and there are also pajamas that have a piece of cloth between the ankles, like the webbing between a frog’s toes.”
Gifts for the kids
Leslie Sude, MD, a Yale Medicine pediatrician, emphasizes the importance of finding ways to get children active and outside.
“The pandemic has brought the need to connect kids with nature and get them moving,” Dr. Sude says. “We are seeing kids gaining a lot of weight since the pandemic started. They aren’t walking to school. They aren’t walking the hallways and so many steps are being lost.”
Ideas to enjoy the outdoors include a telescope to observe the stars, a fishing rod, hiking boots, herb gardens, mushroom kits, bird feeders, long underwear for the family, and hats to bundle up in on cold days. “I don’t want to disappoint the kids with any of these gifts, but these are tough times and it’s an opportunity for us as families to assess our values and what we want to pass on to our children,” Dr. Sude says. “And gift-giving can reflect those values.”
When indoors, board games are always foolproof, Dr. Sude says. “Every child should have Uno and Set, which is a game that is really addictive and engaging,” she says. “Boggle and Bananagrams are other great ideas. For older kids, chess is really making a comeback.”
The point, Dr. Sude says, is to get kids off electronics as much as possible. “But to do that, you need a really compelling substitute, and family time can help with that,” she says. “I think too often kids are expected to entertain themselves and that’s why electronics became such an easy tool. But it’s not healthy, and it does not foster good relationships or help them learn really important life skills.”
She likes the idea of experiential gifts, too. “So many gifts end up collecting dust and become a burden to unload. Plus, many families are struggling right now,” Dr. Sude says. “It can be an experience. And while that may be hard now with the pandemic, maybe it can be a winter picnic inside your house or a special family outing.”
Gifts for your (older) loved ones
For parents and grandparents who have embraced technology as a way to stay in touch with their loved ones, photo frames can be digital. Some frames even allow automatic uploads from an email address or a phone app, says Mary Tinetti, MD, a Yale Medicine geriatrician.
“It takes tech savvy to set it up, so don’t just give it to your loved one. First make sure it is something they think they can handle and then help set it up; then, be available to troubleshoot,” she says. “For older adults who are not into technology, the gift of time helping write and send holiday cards or doing the older adult’s holiday shopping can be helpful and meaningful.”
Gifts for the future
Paula Zimbrean, MD, a Yale Medicine psychiatrist, says the first step to thinking of a gift for someone is staying in touch. “It’s always easier to buy a gift for someone you know, so staying in touch with folks, learning about their struggles, hopes, and dreams, will make shopping easier,” she says. “Be mindful of people’s circumstances, which may have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. For those going through financial distress, a more practical gift may be more appreciated than a luxury item.”
Think gifting experiences or time, rather than objects, she says.
“If you find a safe socially distanced, fun activity to do during the pandemic, sharing it or facilitating it for others may be a nice gift,” she says. “Run an errand for someone at risk [for COVID-19] who is afraid to get out of the house. Last, but not least, this situation will end one day, so think of gifting for the future.”