Caring Currents

Holiday Tipping

Present from Evan!
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As if the hair stylists, teachers, and newspaper deliverymen in your life weren't enough people to acknowledge in the holiday season, looking after aging loved ones plants new deserving faces onto your gift list. What's the protocol for tipping or otherwise thanking home health aides, geriatric care managers, elder companions, nursing home aides, the woman who tackles Dad's gnarled toes every month, et. al.?

Try this 4-step formula:

1. Consider "The Rules"

Here's what etiquette expert Emily Post (who's actually now a bunch of third-generation Posts, presumably all well mannered) suggests:

  • Home health aides: Gift, unless it's against company policy (then consider a donation to the agency)
  • Personal caregiver: One week to one month's salary or gift
  • Private nurse: A thoughtful gift
  • Nursing home workers: Flowers or food for staff to share (not cash)
  • Live-in help: One week to one month pay in cash tip, plus gift
  • Daycare provider: Gift or $25-$70 for each staff member
  • Housekeeper: Up to one week's pay and/or small gift
  • Yard/garden worker: $20 to $50 each

But these traditional guidelines are only starting places.

2. Factor in reality

Life isn't a textbook. So consider:

  • The economy. Not to let you off the hook completely, but your budget matters -- especially this year. It's a calculus you have to make with your head and your heart, and that's hard.
  • The relationship. The person who spends hours with your parent every day deserves more than, say, the masseuse Mom sees at rehab once a week (who may not  require or expect any tip at all).
  • The policy. Some home health agencies and care facilities don't permit their employees to accept cash tips, so check. Again, this doesn't mean they dislike gratitude.  
  • The town. It's customary to tip wider and higher in some places (including New York City, where a lot of journalists writing about tipping -- not me! -- live) than others. So don’t just go by what you read. Ask your neighbors.

3. Go with your gut

Ultimately there's no single "right" answer. Ask yourself:

Why am I tipping? Because you feel obligated? In hopes of better service in the coming year? To say thanks? My mom used to shower her mother's nursing home staff with food treats and flowers so they'd be more aware of Gram, as well as because she knew they worked hard. But for one or two of these women, she also knit fabulous blankets -- because she felt deeply grateful and wanted to express special thanks. Which, of course, is the best reason.

What can I do if I'm flat broke? Ask your extended family to chip in. Remember, too, tips aren't necessarily big checks. Think food (a homemade specialty, a treat), grocery or Wal-Mart gift cards, or handmade gifts. Think personal -- one caregiver I know gave new pjs and a robe to an aide who stayed overnight often, plus some custom-made CDs of her favorite kind of music.

Whatever you give, include a quick note.

How much is too little? You tell me. Sincerity always beats generic re-gifting.

4. Just do it (or not)

Given that many service workers are seen irregularly over the December-January holidays, timing can be an awkward part of gratuities. What if your Mom's favorite aide has Christmas off, or Dad will be out of town over Hanukkah? Is it too late?

No equivocating here: This time of year is a season, with a pretty wide latitude for giving. If you missed giving before the actual holiday, give after. Give as a reflection on the past year and the new year.

The "when" is the easiest part.

Who are you tipping this year, and how?