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2007 Gift Guide

What’s Left to Give?

How to shop for the really, really old folks on your list


The typical gift-giving challenge is “What do you get for the person who has everything?” But even the typical answers to that question don’t quite fit the bill when it comes to shopping for super-elderly relatives. Many are in assisted-living facilities or living in their family’s spare room, so they don’t have much space for decorative things or use for gadgets. They probably have limited diets, so gourmet foods can be tough. If they like scarves, they’ve probably been given one every year for decades.

But it’s not hopeless. Here are some thoughtful ways to give the 90-somethings in your life some holiday cheer.

Give memories. OK, it sounds hokey, but if I make it to my 90s, I plan to spend plenty of time mooning over pictures of a time before it was 80 degrees year round. Pillage attics and storage lockers and go around to the other relatives to collect as many old photos as you can. Slides are even better, since no one hauls out the slide projector any more. Home movies are the motherlode. Organize them into some kind of reasonable order, and take them to your local camera shop or videographer and have them put on a DVD. Or, if that’s too pricey, buy a slide scanner and some DVD-burning software and spend a few sleepless nights scanning and touching up photos and slides yourself. Bonus points if you can arrange to be present and listening when the DVD is first viewed.

Give nostalgia. You know that candy, that game, that hot breakfast cereal, that kind of soap, that Christmas album, and the old-fashioned kind of cheese slicer that your great aunt always reminisces about? It’s not guaranteed, but chances are you can find one of them out there in the world still. Take surreptitious notes on your next visit as she’s storytelling (it’ll help you look alert, too). Then hit the antique shops and the used book stores. Hit eBay. Hit the online versions of the Vermont Country Store and Lehman’s, both of which specialize (in different ways) in selling new copies of things from bygone eras. It’ll hardly matter how useful the thing is in the present if it prompts those pleased memories.

Give a little freedom. Especially for folks who are living in some kind of institution, getting out is hard. They can’t drive any more. Buses are unpredictable and may not come close enough. Even small trips can be tiring. Make a promise to take them out—to the park, to the mall, for a meal, to see another relative or friend. It doesn’t have to be a fancy night on the town, and in fact probably shouldn’t be. If you’re not local and can’t make such an offer, usually there’s some nearby restaurant that your favorite elderly person can get to on foot, using their building’s shuttle, or through a local senior transportation service. Find out what it is, and get them some gift certificates for it. Don’t choose a “better” restaurant farther away. That is distinctly not the point.

Give a little comfort. At some age we stop expecting that people have a right to feel good in their bodies. It’s stereotypical that old people are just a bag of health complaints. Turn this on its head by scheduling an in-home massage or spa treatment. Seek out a provider who has experience with older people, and be sure that your gift recipient knows she can speak up about what she wants and doesn’t want.

Give a little distraction. Large-print versions are only published of the most best-selling books. To expand horizons, go in for audiobooks.

Give back some communication. If you’re old, you have hearing loss. It’s inevitable. Shouting can be tiring on all involved, but a little bit of sign language can go a long way to easing communication as the ears start to tune out. It won’t work too well for retelling the stories of yore, but it can get the basics across, which can be a great relief. As a gift idea, this is touchy to implement: Some older folks will find it fascinating and useful and enjoy the challenge; others might feel they’ve earned the right not to learn new tricks. You be the judge. If it seems like a good idea for the person on your list, look into an introductory ASL DVD and/or flashcards. Also get them for anyone in the family who visits on a regular basis. Watching the DVD together could even give you something to do in that lull after the holiday meal.

Give a little connection. E-mail and YouTube may (or may not) be a stretch for your favorite old person, but if they have a computer at all and you can set them up with a Web cam and a VOIP account so that they can get a periodic gander at the grandkids without anyone having to truck across the country, chances are they’ll learn to make that work.

—Miriam Axel-Lute


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