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The Best Holiday Gift for Older Relatives

Helping my mother-in-law do her Christmas shopping after her memory began to fail was the best gift I could possibly give her. 

By Brooke Ellerson


A couple years before my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she mentioned to me that she wasn’t looking forward to Christmas. She didn’t like shopping anymore, she said.

But she’d always been a “giver.” She took particular pride in it. After a little probing, it seemed that what had changed for her was not the pleasure in giving. She was finding it more difficult to stay organized and remember the grandchildrens’ interest and ages. Plus, she had no desire to go downtown and join the hoards of shoppers. Fair enough.

If she’d have been satisfied skipping the gifting ritual altogether, I would have suggested it. But I knew she wanted to stay engaged in our annual tradition—she just needed a little help. When I offered to do the legwork for her, she was grateful and relieved. I’d known her for ten years at this point and I knew her gift-giving style. A retired teacher, she favored practical gifts for adults and books or educational toys for children.

That first year I helped her make a list of people she wanted to buy a present for and suggested what would be appropriate. I knew who among her friends and relatives usually dropped by with a gift for her each year, so that was a good start. She wrote me a check to cover it all. This gave me a budget to work with and I just added her purchases in as I did my own shopping. Before Christmas, I took the gifts to her house and showed her everything she got, then wrapped each gift in her wrapping paper.

During our family holiday gathering, she was happy and engaged. “Do you like the color?” she asked my husband about the shirt she had given him. “Bring grandma the book,” she said to our son, who climbed up on the couch to let her read it to him. This was one of her favorite activities.

“Bring grandma the book,” she said after her grandson opened the gift we found shopping together.

We did her gift shopping together every holiday season for a few years. It became our own little holiday tradition—and it seemed exciting and new to her each year. No one but me knew that she wasn’t able to shop and wrap gifts herself anymore. But everyone knew she was still a giver.

In later years, she became more agitated with visitors and eventually didn’t recognize holidays or even seasons. But for those transitional years when she was hanging on to early memories of holiday rituals, I think I helped prolong her enjoyment—with some dignity—as the head of our family.

Grandpa’s low-stress, personalized holiday shopping: It’s a wrap!

The Perfect Gift for Grandma or Grandpa This Holiday Season

Do you have an older relative who may have a compromised immune system? Can no longer maneuver through bustling malls? Hasn’t mastered the fine art of online shopping? All of the above? Think about giving your time to help them shop for holiday gifts. Set a date on the calendar, pour some tea or eggnog, then get comfy in front of a computer for some quality online shopping time together.

Here are some tips to make it fun and festive:

1. Help her make a list of grandchildren (and other gift recipients) and check it twice. Prompt her if she is forgetting someone you know she wants to include: “What about your brother? What would you like to give him this year?”

2. Have color preferences, interests, and clothing sizes handy—and suggest items they actually might need or want.

3. Look at recent family photos together if memory is an issue. Take the time to talk about what each person is up to these days.

4. Determine the budget. Ask how much she would like to spend per person or in total and stick to it. If money is tight, suggest one family gift, like a game everyone can play together for families with children at home.

5. Consider simplifying by choosing a gift category for all family members each year—books, scarves, or socks are fun and easy ones to customize for each recipient. For example, get dress socks for the recent college graduate, compression socks for the in-law who’s training for a marathon, and crazy socks for the little ones.

6. Schedule time to shop. Sit together with a laptop and search for items on your list. You may want to do some searching ahead of time and save links to items you’ve found.

7. Use her credit card to make the purchases or use your own and have her pay you by check or cash for her items.

8. Have online orders delivered to you so you can keep track of them and handle the wrapping and mailing.

9. Bring a handful of gift tags so she can sign them while you’re shopping together.

10. Watch your family open gifts on Christmas morning with genuine joy.

You may want to save grandma or grandpa’s gift list for next year to avoid giving the same or very similar gifts two years in a row. Our parents aren’t the only ones who can be memory challenged—especially around the holidays.


Happy holidays to you and your family! Best wishes for the New Year! the Honor family

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