My beloved Uncle Pete, who is also my godfather, has dementia. Every year since childhood I’ve given him a Christmas gift, often something with special meaning, such as a book by an author we both admire or a handmade ceramic mug. But now that he has dementia, he will enjoy unwrapping a gift and express delight, but five minutes later he will have forgotten it. Part of me wonders if there is a point to buying something for him. The whole exercise makes me sad. (Also, he has everything he needs.) Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this holiday issue?
—Not Feeling Festive, Not Far from Feasterville
Dear NFF Squared,
You should give him a gift.
I can see why the “whole exercise” makes you sad. Christmas can be a bittersweet time for those who have suffered losses—which is most of us. And a loved one in cognitive decline can inspire even more of this seasonal loneliness, regret, and nostalgia than a loved one who has left us completely. It is easier to mourn our beloved dead when, and how, we please; but in the case of a friend or relative with dementia, their very presence is a sort of ongoing bereavement as we are continually reminded of what they, and we, have lost.
Your uncle’s response to your gifts is, sadly, a perfect instance of this reminder of loss. But, on the positive side, part of him is still here, and there are still some actions, however limited, you can take to make his Christmas happier. (Think of how poor Jacob Marley would envy you!) You say that your uncle enjoys the act of unwrapping gifts. Fleeting, soon-forgotten enjoyment may not count for as much as abiding, long-remembered happiness—but it does count for something. And your uncle does experience some delight, however short-lived. That, in the generous spirit of the season, is what should control your decision, even though giving him a gift may make you unhappy.
By the way, you might try to actually be happy about presenting your uncle with a gift. Think, zenlike, of the joy you are both taking in the moment (and the present). Think about how you would do almost anything for him. I say this not because I think people always have some sort of weird duty to enjoy doing what’s right, but because I think you really can find some genuine fulfillment here—and because people with dementia are often quite aware of the emotions of others: you would not want your uncle to sense your sadness and become distressed himself.
At the risk of sounding as if I’m making a heartless, trite joke: if your uncle really does forget about the gift right away, you can make him happy over and over by just rewrapping it and giving it to him again. If he sometimes has lucid moments about past gifts, though, I would not try this. He might be hurt, and further confused, and you would feel like an idiot.
As for what to give him: I suggest one of those books by an author you both admire. Then you can borrow it back and read it. That way it will be his gift to you as well as yours to him. I am sure he would like that.
I think I am a thoughtful person, but I am really terrible at predicting who is going to give me gifts at Christmas and Hanukkah, and how lavish, or not, these gifts will be. Last year I was very embarrassed on more than on occasion. How does one respond in such cases?
—Inept in Indiana
Few situations require more fancy footwork than an unanticipated gift imbalance. It’s hard to say what’s worse: standing there feeling stingy and, perhaps, stalked after receiving an emerald tiara, knowing that the package your donor is gleefully ripping open contains a giant oatmeal raisin cookie; or observing your donee’s extremely mixed emotions as he unwraps his Rolex and simultaneously tries to grab back the envelope he just gave you, which you will soon find out contains a $15 gift certificate for iTunes.
Fortunately, there are several tactics you can use to make such situations—or less dramatic examples of them, anyway—happier and less embarrassing.
Surprisingly, the situation where one of the people in what, just to sound scholarly and authoritative, I will call the “gift dyad,” gives no present at all is often easier than a case of unequal gifts. If you are the empty-handed person, you have several options. One, of course, is to shake your head, or hit some part of your body with your fist, and lay the blame on your supplier or carrier. L. L. Bean might have your gift on backorder; UPS tracking may have just told you your gift is in Moline; or this is it, you’ve had it with Parcel Post. Unless you are actually living with them, most people do not actually demand documentation of any of this.
If you are not at home when the gift is presented, you also have the option of saying that home is where your gift is. If this is the last day you are likely to see your donor before the holidays in the ordinary course of events, you will have to apologize for your absent-mindedness at leaving their gift at home. But if the gift is presented earlier, you have at least two options. One is to say something along the lines of “I had no idea we were exchanging gifts today. I’ll bring mine in tomorrow.” The other is actually truthful, or at least becomes truthful the minute you realize that you are about to be given a gift and have none of your own: instead of saying that you left yours at home, you can shake your head self-deprecatingly and and confess that you still haven’t finished shopping this year. Of course, both these options require that you actually buy a gift for this particular gift-giver, which may never have been your intention. You will have to do your own, case-by-case cost-benefit and ethical analysis. But do err on the side of generosity and good cheer.
It is always a smart idea to have one or more generic, but not obviously generic, gifts on hand at home—and at work or school, if these are where you are likely to face the specter of empty-handedness. Thought-provoking books are good choices. Wine, fancy food, and restaurant gift certificates work in some circles. Or the latest gadget may be best if, like me, you hang out in a gadgety crowd. You may even need a toy or two if you have kids in your life. If you do have the time and money to stockpile a few gifts, it makes sense to get things you or your family would be happy keeping, because that is what may happen. It is also important to wrap everything and (unless you are at work, and have to keep stuff in a drawer) include a blank tag: when someone arrives bearing gifts for you, all you’ll have to do is go into the next room and and fetch theirs. They won’t notice the ten seconds it takes you to scribble “Thought you’d love this, Tony” on the pre-attached tag.
It is trickier, as I have said, when you do give something, but the other half of the ol’ dyad gives something much more expensive, thoughtful, personal, or otherwise “major.” Assuming that this is an imbalance you would prefer to redress—and it may not be: there are many good reasons to discourage lavish, escalating, or too-personal gifts—you can try a variant on the no-gift gambit by saying that what you have just given is not the “real” gift, just some kind of gag or placeholder or partial gift until Amazon, the monogrammer, or Tiffany’s comes through, or until you and your donee can pick a date for those concert or ball game tickets you plan to buy them.
But there are occasions where your gift may, very obviously, be what you intended to give. When this happens all you can do is be as tactful as possible. Show your appreciation for the gift you receive—say, even. that you are overwhelmed—while taking care not to embarrass or distress the giver by implying that they overreached or presumed on your relationship. If you have an open, easy relationship with the giver, you can even say something like “Wow, you outdid me this time, but I’ll get you on your birthday.”
In all gift exchanges, it is best to open your gift first, and slowly. This gives you time to work on your reaction—which can be especially important in the case of gift imbalance where, as we have seen, you may have to draw on your reserves of tact and inventiveness.
Up to now I have been concentrating on advising the less-generous (if that term can be used in a neutral sense) half of the dyad. That is because there is little you can do when you are the one who receives the smaller gift, or none at all, except behave graciously and, if possible, feel gracious. Tell that person who just got your grandma’s tiara that oatmeal raisin is a fine cookie variety, and that food is always a welcome gift. Try to make the person who got you nothing at all feel as if one-sided giving is just fine in the current situation. If you are visiting, call your present a hostess gift. If you are being visited, or on neutral turf, say that you never expected anything, and give presents simply to please yourself (if you think they will buy this); or just keep smiling and say nothing at all. Try your best not to be disappointed and, if you can afford it, go home and order yourself something nice. You deserve it for being such a loving, giving person.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
Image credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash