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Bringing Homespun Fun to a Nursing Home Resident
By Jean Schaefer
For those living in nursing homes, life can become routine. Liven up your visits with this grab bag of helpful tips.


A New Kind of Recycling
Tailor-made Treasures

Bringing Homespun Fun to a Nursing Home Resident

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 relatives.

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 goody bag.

This way they can still keep up with their favorite singer or musical act.

Old Pictures

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 facility.

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.

Homemade Treats

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.

Business Cards

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.

Newspaper Clippings

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 one.

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.

Internet Research

Did your loved one have a hobby or interest, such as model trains or antique dolls, that you could research on the Internet?

An article on his or her old hobby makes a thoughtful addition to the goody bag.

Grandchildren’s Projects

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 comic strip.

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!   


Jean Schaefer, attended Marquette University in Milwaukee where she honed her skills in professional writing. They were put to good use: Jean has had some 150 articles printed in both national and international publications. Married with four sons, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, Jean enjoys watercolor paintings and reading in her spare time, when she can find it.

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