Last Birthday Present
October 27, 2010 2:35 PM   Subscribe

What to give someone for their last birthday?

My Grandmother is having what will most likely be her last birthday. She has late stage cancer and is confined to her bedroom. The doctors said she would not make it beyond Christmas. Other than spending time with her, what is a good gift to give someone? Something that will make these last months a little better. We are thinking of all preparing a meal of all her favorite foods but I wanted to do something more. For Mothers Day I bought her a bunch of classic movies but she never watched them. Any creative ideas would be helpful.

posted by sav to Human Relations (39 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing will be enough. The closest you can get is to make something for her with love. Everything else is just stuff: stuff she won't have any use for soon.

On a side note, you might want to interview her and record the interview. You will cherish that recording down the line and it will be part of your family history.

I wish you and your grandmother the best.
posted by inturnaround at 2:39 PM on October 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

I know you have the best intentions, and I'm sorry for your impending loss, but this presents itself as a trick question: you can't take anything with you.

Wish her a happy birthday, thank her for everything, and focus on quality time together.
posted by trip and a half at 2:42 PM on October 27, 2010 [10 favorites]

Time, spend time with her.
posted by Max Power at 2:46 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Your time. As much as you can give.
posted by GernBlandston at 2:47 PM on October 27, 2010

The day before my MIL passed away last year, we went down to spend the day with her, and my partner played Rhapsody in Blue for her on her piano. I was the one who had the privilege of watching her pride as she watched her son perform for her. It's something I still think about a lot.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:51 PM on October 27, 2010 [23 favorites]

Aside from suggesting the ephemeral and enjoyable, I can only respond to this with another question: what can you give that says "I know you" to her?

"I know you" is a powerful message to send to someone in a gift. Think of something that will convey the message "We will remember you, not just as a name, some photographs, and a few anecdotes, but beyond 'Grandmother,' as a person, with detail: likes, dislikes, loves, quirks, allergies ... a goofy laugh, an inordinate fondness for bees ..." to her.
posted by adipocere at 2:52 PM on October 27, 2010 [13 favorites]

Time. Time time time time time.

And love. And thanks. And sharing memories.

A party with people she loves and all her favorite foods (and perhaps a beauty splurge before that, if she is someone who likes manicures and similar) sounds great, if it sounds great to her.

All the best to you, and to her, and to all of her family and friends.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:53 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Make her a video birthday card. Get all the kids, grandkids, friends, etc (especially those who are far away) to make a short, fun birthday video. Compile it all together into a longer video and watch it with her, like a virtual birthday party.
posted by stefanie at 2:53 PM on October 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

I would bring her flowers, and try to keep replenishing the flowers every week or so to perk up her room, since she is confined to it. Also, they will probably remind her of you, which I think would be really nice.

And spend as much time with her as she is up for. I think more stuff at this point would just be a little empty.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 2:54 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Write her a letter. Write her multiple letters. About anything.

Record yourself singing or playing an instrument or reading a story.

Make her mix cds of her favorite songs, soothing songs, funny songs, songs you've written.
posted by Madamina at 2:56 PM on October 27, 2010

Time, attention, love, and whatever might give her some pleasure: her favorite food (but only if she wants it -- and she very well might not, if she's in late-stage cancer), music, etc.

Also, what about spending the day going through old family albums with her? Or, if you've only got scattered family photos, what about assembling them in an album to look at with her? Are there any stories of hers you'd like to hear one more time, or bits of family history you'd like clarified, or family recipes that need to be written down?

I'm sorry for your coming loss. I wish you the best as you spend these last precious months together.
posted by scody at 2:58 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

roomthreeseventeen story is so sweet.

Does she enjoy music?
If she has many grandchildren (or great grandchildren) could they come over and sing?? Do a play they have practiced??

If nothing like that is an option and she does enjoy music hire a quartet, a flutist or hire a moving company and a pianist.

How quickly can you do a this is your life book? You could sit and go over some pictures in it with her and let her know you printed up X number of copies of it to ive to her grandchildren. She may even want to write a loving note to them in it.

A huge bouquet of roses with a note attached to each with your favorite memories of her and why you love her?
posted by beccaj at 2:59 PM on October 27, 2010

If you are set on something physical, perhaps a comfortable and warm bed jacket if she doesn't already have such a thing.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:59 PM on October 27, 2010

Audiobook. I assume she's spending quite a bit of time in bed. She can 'read' it with a minimum of effort, and if she should happen to close her eyes for a little while, that's fine too.

I'd be inclined to give her a 'normal' present, instead of something that says 'so long, farewell'. But my people are emotionally reserved, and YMMV.
posted by Capt. Renault at 3:01 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Consider that a big meal might be too much for her. She might not have much of an appetite.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:23 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd be inclined to give her a 'normal' present, instead of something that says 'so long, farewell'.

Yeah, but instead of audiobook, I'd do flowers, chocolate/sweets, stationery. Something ephemeral and useful. Then, not as a present, spend time with her/interview her whatever.
posted by Michael Pemulis at 3:27 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would talk to her about the best memories you have of her growing up.
posted by Biru at 3:33 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Chocolates and other sweets are good because she will probably like to have things she can share with visitors. If you're going for a physical present then needs more cowbell has it -- something comfortable and warm, and if you can decorate it yourself, bonus! home-made presents are extra nice to receive.
posted by anadem at 3:39 PM on October 27, 2010

Spending time with her, really. Those movies you got? Maybe she wants to watch them with someone.

Plan what you can, but also take your cues from her. People go through physical and emotional changes when they are near death. Those favorite foods may no longer be palatable to her -- my father, for example, was a lifelong Coca-Cola enthusiast. But in his last few months of life, he was surprised by how much different Coke tasted: "I used to like this crap?!" So, if you do go the food route, put more of the thought into the event of a gathering with your grandma, rather than the food itself.

Above all, reassure her you'll help take care of her final needs and who/what she is leaving behind. And let her know her final days are anything but a burden.
posted by Wossname at 3:47 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If she's got to grips with the idea of dying and it's not freaking her out too much, I second somehow recording a little bit of her for future generations - extending her legacy by just an inch, if you will.
posted by wackybrit at 4:16 PM on October 27, 2010

I haven't seen my grandmother in five years (she lives almost directly across the globe from me), and she's pretty feeble. Every time I talk to her on the phone, or when I ask her what she would like when someone's going over, or if I visit somewhere and ask what to bring her, she tells me... "I want to see you."

Spend time with her. Talk to her about your life, little funny stories that happen in your day-to-day world, and perhaps bring pictures to show her. She wants to share your life, know you're happy. Letting her know that she is and always will be an important part of your life whether or not she's physically there is the most precious gift you can give her.
posted by Everydayville at 4:29 PM on October 27, 2010

If you have the kind of relationship where a conversation like this wouldn't be awkward, ask her about something she's never seen or done that she's always wanted to see or do, but never had the chance. Then make it happen in a way as close to the real thing as possible.

For example, maybe she's always wanted to see the Grand Canyon. Find a way to show her the Grand Canyon via a video broadcast on the wall of her room. (Ideally, it's from a first-person perspective, or a virtual reality tour where you could pan the camera around.) Maybe she's always wanted to ride on a motorcycle. Find someone with a motorcycle that has a sidecar who could take her around the block.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:33 PM on October 27, 2010

Really excellent pajamas.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:38 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

A scrap-book in which each person in the family and each of her friends contributes a page recounting what having her in their lives has meant to them.
posted by Lolie at 4:39 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

What happens when you're close to death is that a lot of people freak out, don't know what to say, and stop calling or visiting.

The best gift you can give, in general, is time.

Occasional meaningful visits, unless she prefers them more often (people approaching death can have just the same needs for alone time as in life).

Now, to take it to another extreme, a friend of mine, faced with death, hosted a Memento Mori party for themselves. Black balloons, black M&Ms, Day of the Dead skeletons. For that friend, besides time, I gave them this inappropriate Woot shirt. They loved it.
posted by zippy at 5:05 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

For her last Christmas, I sent my grandma a card in which I enclosed a lot of my written memories about things we had done together during my childhood, and how much I'd loved and appreciated all the memories she'd given me. I had forgotten to include it in the box with her gift, so I mailed the card separately.

She got the gift on time, but somehow the card got lost in the mail for weeks, and she didn't end up receiving it until she was in the hospital with the illness that marked her official transition from "normal life" to "dying."

I received in response a letter she'd written on the back of a random hospital form (because she didn't have any paper in there) telling me how much it cheered her and how perfect a time it was to receive it, when she was ill and knew her life was ending. Just knowing that I appreciated her and loved her and wanted to thank her for being in my life made her feel more at peace than anything else, I think. To her, the card was way better than the actual gift. She died a few months later.

This experience makes me think it might be nice for you to write down your memories of her in a little book and give it to her to read, or spend some time reading it aloud to her. Tell her how she helped you grow into the person you are now.
posted by Ouisch at 5:05 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Biru: I would talk to her about the best memories you have of her growing up.

This is exactly what I was thinking. Tell her your favourite memories of her, what you learned from her, how much she means to you. You will be both be happy you did.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:10 PM on October 27, 2010

I would hand-make her a card, and make a scrap-book of some sort..
posted by Glendale at 5:38 PM on October 27, 2010

I gave my grandmother pringles on her last birthday. It was one of the few things she wanted to eat. Being with her was the best thing I could do for either of us.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:45 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was in this position not long ago, and you have my very best wishes.

Time is, of course, the right answer. But she should also have a present. My grandmother had lost her appetite for much of anything, but she had always liked food and drink, so what I got her was some exotic herbal teas from Teavana.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:48 PM on October 27, 2010

Nthing quality time. As much (or, more preferably, as often) as you can give. You'll be glad you did, though also make sure to keep her comfort foremost in mind. I wouldn't make a big ceremony out of her birthday at all, unless you have a sense from listening to her and talking to her that she desires to do so. "The last birthday" is very poignant and heady in the abstract, but loved ones in your grandmother's position may rather skip the dramatics. Be well.
posted by applemeat at 7:16 PM on October 27, 2010

Agree with everything everyone is saying about the time and whatever. But when we were doing these things for the elderly folk in my life: flowers, a favorite treat (dried apricots, in our case), and super practical things. Like, honestly, toilet paper. YMMV based on what your grandma is like, but the woman I'm thinking of was a very practical woman, and thought that toilet paper or kleenex were the best gift. It made her laugh, and made her proud of us that we would be so practical. If not those things, a super nice blanket, one that is fuzzy or satiny, and one that you can keep after she's gone.

Hang in there.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:17 PM on October 27, 2010

p.s. And I love the idea of recording her memories and stories on tape or camera, if that's something she'd like to do. The respite of hours lost in laughter and glad memories is the best gift possible.
posted by applemeat at 7:19 PM on October 27, 2010

I saw this journal in a catalog. It's a "tell me your story, guided journal". It's got questions about family history, childhood memories, dreams, spiritual adventures, etc, and then space to write it. It's only $5. You could even do it interview style and it'd be a great was for you to sit down with your grandmother and get to know her better before she goes on.
posted by shesaysgo at 9:13 PM on October 27, 2010

give her a manicure/footrub/pedicure
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:17 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

For Mothers Day I bought her a bunch of classic movies but she never watched them

For Christmas, watch them with her. And bless you.
posted by humannaire at 12:21 AM on October 28, 2010

Things we got my nana in the year before she died somewhat unexpectedly: a magazine subscription, groceries, a drive around town, a scarf to wear if she was sitting outside, cards made by her great-grandkids, photos, recordings, old records she loved, fresh fruit, her favorite cookies, letters. We dug through old photos and asked her to share her stories about them. I went on a visit to her father's home town and brought back her genealogy from the museum.

My sisters and I cut her hair, did her nails, cut her toenails (the hospital charged extra, jerks). We sat with her and listened to her hilarious grumbles about roommates, doctors, carers. My kids came and sat beside her and told her stories she couldn't hear because she was so deaf we had to shout, but she would nod and smile and encourage them to go on. My mother redid her spare bedroom as a library with a big armchair overlooking the sea, and all her thousands of books (nana was a hoarder) on new shelves around her.

What it mostly added up to, as you know, was time.
posted by tracicle at 2:03 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Booze? Some really classy booze, whatever her favourite is.
posted by Ted Maul at 2:06 AM on October 28, 2010

My grandmother wanted:
-something very very soft to sleep in. Her skin would chafe even at the gentle neck seam in a nightgown. I made her a couple of things, but what she wore was a 20-year-old stretched-out hairband concert tee with the collar ripped off.
-ripe avocado, in a spoon.
-to be awoken if she fell asleep during her show, but only if her favourite character was in the scene.
-to smell coffee, even though she did not want to drink any.
-a book from her own house, ditto.
-flavoured lip gloss. She had ten or so different ones.
-her cigarettes, even though she was unable to co-ordinate the effort of smoking them. She liked to get one out of her bag and hold it, and smell it. She had a sympathetic caretaker who allowed this, but if she hadn't, I might have made her a tobacco sachet (as horrible as it seems).
-a big pad of paper and a pen-on-a-string in the bed with her at all times in case she remembered something she wanted to say later.

Because of her frequent naps, our visits seemed short and unpredictable to her. Their limited length and her perception of scarcity caused her a lot of stress. A lot of her awake-time was frustrating to her because she felt she had things she had to say to us and at the same time she forgot what she wanted to say. Often they were things she had already told us, but had forgotten.

It took us too long to figure out the sweet spot between "helping" her remember and trying to convince her she had already said it, without looking like liars. The pad of paper was the answer -- she got to say her say while she was awake and in a remembery frame of mind (whether we were there or not) and we got to read her rainbow of lines, arced around the place where her wrist rested on the paper, and be truly honest with her to the end instead of sacrificing her desire to communicate in order to keep her calm.

I guess I am trying to say that a Thing (or even a Service) isn't necessarily the gift she might cherish at this time of her life. Depending on how she is feeling, food or scents might not even be pleasant.

Is your grandmother somewhere where you can supply your own linens (home hospice, or a residential facility?) Get her some knit jersey sheets. They are so soft they feel like they are made out of love. If she's in a facility where laundry services are provided, get a colour instead of white.
posted by Sallyfur at 3:03 PM on November 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

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