With the end of the year and the holidays nearly upon us many of us are thinking of gift giving and when a person in your life has a major illness it can sometimes be challenging to find the right gift. I've recently had two different people ask me for suggestions for appropriate gifts to get for someone with a major illness. One person recently learned of a friend's brain cancer diagnosis and wondered what she could send to the patient that would be useful and comforting. The other person had noticed that an elderly relative with Alzheimer's disease appeared to be declining in the last several months and wanted to know if there were specific gifts she could send that might help the patient feel more comfortable in the assisted living facility as their memory declines. I was glad that they were thoughtfully researching options for appropriate gifts.
From the time that my husband was first diagnosed with cancer and throughout the time that he was sick we received a steady supply of gifts in the mail. Within a day or two of letting people know about his diagnosis a hat arrived from a dear friend and the hats continued to arrive for months. My husband particularly liked silly things so before long he had dozens of hats that looked like Muppets, robots, pumpkins, monsters, and characters from video games along with several other plain, more professional looking hats. A hat or head scarf is often considered the "traditional" gift to send to someone with a cancer diagnosis. My husband had very long hair so right before his first chemo treatment he had his hair cut off and donated it to charity. With his newly bald head the hats were a welcome and useful gift. However it really isn't safe to assume that every person with a cancer diagnosis will need and welcome a hat or head scarf, especially once they have received a few. Not all chemotherapy causes the patient to lose hair and some patients prefer not to cover their heads. It's similar to the tradition of bringing home cooked meals to a family when someone is sick. While much of the time it's a helpful and welcome gift sometimes because of the patient's dietary restrictions or preferences or symptoms giving a meal is not helpful at all. It is because of this that I recommend that you do not automatically give the expected or traditional gift and instead find out what the patient might find useful.
One of the easiest ways to find the right gift is to simply ask the patient or their care giver or a close family member. Asking is almost always the best policy but you may find people will tell you not to bother with a gift. Therefore I recommend you offer specific suggestions rather than asking "What do you need or want?" Instead spend a little time thinking about the individual and do a little research about the kinds of things that might be helpful for someone coping with their particular condition. Then ask if the patient might appreciate a hat or whatever you think might be a good idea. You can do your research by looking online for information about the illness which will give you a better understanding of the symptoms and issues the patient may be dealing with to help you find something useful. It can also be helpful to ask someone else you know who has or had the same illness or post questions in online discussion forums about the illness. By doing a little bit of research and thinking about the individual you can narrow it down to a few choices that will make the conversation flow smoothly.
Also it is important to remember that just because someone has a major illness you do not need to choose a gift that you think will help with the illness. It is of course our most common thought when we know someone is dealing with illness, we want to give something that helps. However the patient may really appreciate receiving something "normal" that you know they will enjoy unrelated to the illness. Often when you are dealing with major illness it becomes a part of your identity; it is the way that people relate to you. So it can be incredibly refreshing to have someone acknowledge the patient from life before illness. This of course depends on the specifics of the situation.
When it comes to gift giving for a patient, it is important to think about the patient as an individual rather than "a person with X disease". Remember who they are as a whole person first. In doing this, whatever gift you choose you will find the appropriate thing that will provide the comfort and acknowledgement you want to give.