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Response to "Thoughtful gifts"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  November 10, 2009 05:57 AM

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Lots of good responses to the request for good holiday gift ideas. The original suggestion came in from a reader who recommended the gift of a snow-removal service for elderly relatives, and so, unsurprisingly, a number of people chimed in with ideas of their own for older friends or family. Annette had a good one:

Cab vouchers. A lot of cab companies offer them and they're a great gift for an elderly relative that can no longer drive themselves around but would still like a measure of independence. Before my Nonna moved into assisted living, this was what my father and his siblings would get her. And she loved it.

Great idea! bah humbug had another good one:

Here is a simple idea for the elderly: offer to come in and change all the batteries in the smoke detectors. Make it a yearly event.

E.A. Week had a good point about how to give such gifts:

Third, re: gifts to the elderly—or to anyone who is living alone, or whose physical abilities or domestic skills are limited—the gifts of time and skill are invaluable … Don’t wait to be asked—offer to help, and above all, let the recipient know the offer is made with gladness and pleasure. For a person of limited skills and/or resources, sometimes simply not having to beg for help is a priceless gift. Help that is offered grudgingly, or with too many emotional strings attached, is no gift at all.

And trying to be a thoughtful shopper digs a little deeper as well:

For those looking for gifts for elderly family members, here are my old tips. I would try to stay in tune with my grandmother's daily life. When she was still able to drive locally, I would get her gift certificates to her preferred drug or grocery store. When she mainly just stayed home, I would get her a large supply of duck food, as feeding her visiting friends was a big highlight for her. When she moved into assisted living, I got her gift certificates for the in-house beauty salon or a nice bright new piece of clothing as she started comparing her clothes to her neighbors' and I thought maybe some cheerful clothes would help her feel cheerful. But most importantly, I got these ideas from visits, as I knew the visits are what she wanted most. [Italics added]

I mention in my book that part of what we are doing when we give someone a gift is showing them how well we know them. I don't think this function can be overlooked, especially in the case of older people who, as we've discussed, are often ignored or treated as a member of a homogenous group. (This is also why it's okay to give money and gift certificates to teenagers and college students, as they don't want to feel easily known.)

Many, many folks said that they were doing "experience gifts" this year, which I can't recommend highly enough even in economic good times. From JennT:

I've started doing cookie baking dates at the start of the holiday season with close friends who have kids rather than exchanging gifts for them. They all get so much already, and rather than adding another shopping item to our list, it gives us a guaranteed day together during the season.
… and akmom:
For children, give them an outing instead of a toy. It doesn't have to be fancy - a trip to the zoo, a movie, or even just to come over and bake cookies or play a game. We've asked relatives to do this the past few years and it has been a huge hit - with everyone. The memories are worth so much more than any toy.
… and veronica:
I started instituting experience based gifts. Unless there's something I know my mom really needs and/or wants, her gift these days is an experience. I'm trying to take her to Avenue Q in Boston this year. Two years ago we saw Springsteen. While it doesn't save my wallet, I figure if i'm going to spend 50-60 dollars (or more), I'd much rather spend it on an experience than stuff.

Melissa's family has decided to be strict about gift-giving for economic and environmental reasons:

Since two people in my extended family are unemployed, and since we are trying to be more "green", we've instituted a nothing new policy for Christmas and birthdays. The rule is that we can give each other something we make, or regift something we already have (such as a book we really like or a movie we think the other person will like). Used items purchased from a thrift store are also acceptable. It's been really great because it's forced us all to think about the person, instead of the gift. And it's reduced our impact on the environment by reusing things instead of buying new.
We've also spent more time together as a family as a result. This fall, we spend the long holiday weekend making homemade apple butter and spiced pears for our friends from fruit in our yard! This winter, we'll make cookies and bread.

I really like this, I have to say. (I'm glad everyone in Melissa's family does, too, and it didn't cause a big feud.) It sounds fun and creative and generally less stressful. It wouldn't make me feel deprived at all to celebrate Christmas this way, if I still did – would it you?

Finally, I have to note this, also from bah humbug:

When my kids were little, grandma recorded hours and hours of stories - some of them read from favorite books; most of them either from her own childhood, or just made up by herself and her imagination. Meanwhile grandpa has gotten handy with the scanner and each year for xmas gives us all a CD containing old family photos.

Great idea. A friend of mine did that for her family one year, with photos going back as far as she had them, and scored with a recording of her grandmother playing bouzouki music. It was a big fat Greek Christmas hit with her family, too.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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2 comments so far...
  1. Let's put this to a vote! I would be delighted to receive any of these thoughtful gifts, much more so than something with a store tag on it.

    Posted by Q November 10, 09 09:15 AM
  1. I agree -- what a great list.

    I am taking my mother to Boston for Christmas. If y'all could drum up some decent weather down there for us, it would be much appreciated.

    Posted by bluemoose November 10, 09 03:43 PM
About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

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Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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