Dear Family Advisor

I need a great gift for sick parents who have no material wants.

Last updated: Aug 22, 2009

My mom has vascular dementia, and my dad is her primary caregiver. It's their anniversary, and I'd like to get them something meaningful. Dad is obviously under much stress, and Mom doesn't respond to anything. It's impossible for me and my sister to help much because I have multiple sclerosis and live an hour away from them. My sister lives closer but is battling cancer. What in the world can I give them to celebrate their 52nd anniversary? It's more for my dad, since Mom probably won't realize anything.

Your family is really facing a lot right now, and you're right to focus on what your dad would enjoy. Your mom might not be able to respond to things the way she once did, but your dad can. And you're right to want to give them something worthy of a celebration of a lifetime of togetherness.

It sounds corny, but your greatest present is to be present. And you and your sister might enjoy the gift just as much as he does. Even if you do nothing other than get together for hugs and kisses and sharing memories, that's the most precious gift all around. That said, I've suggested some artsy ideas below "“ but please don't feel you need to do anything that would be hard or overwhelming for you. Do what feels "doable." And do what gives you -- and your dad -- the most meaning.

52 memories for 52 years.

Sit down with your dad and sister and "brainstorm." Write down 52 memories, snippets, best presents at Christmas, funniest or most embarrassing situations, times you got lost, favorite songs, Mom's favorite dessert. These don't need to be profound, and you don't have to weed out the sad or challenging memories -- life is made up of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

You could then take some of these memories and do something with them -- you or someone "artsy" could take photographs you have duplicates of (or make color copies), glue these onto a canvas, and then write the memories over them with a pen. (Gold is the traditional 50th color, but any color will do.)

Or be playful and write the 52 memories on ping-pong balls. Place the balls in a large bowl where you can pull them out one by one when the mood strikes you. If your dad walks with a cane, why not give him a nice walking stick (you can get these at specialty stores or online) on which you've written some memories with a Sharpie pen and then shellacked? It's something he can carry with him everywhere.

Videotape a visit.

This is the real gift -- sharing, laughing, reminiscing. Whatever you "do" with these memories is just gravy. If you're really industrious, you can upload this video online (on YouTube) and invite family and friends to view it (but be sure everyone -- your dad, you, and your sister -- is comfortable with that first).

Tell the world.

Another idea is what my adoptive dad did for his and my mom's 50th anniversary. Daddy went to the craft store and bought the house numbers 5 and 0 and attached them to a little wooden stand, and then he took a bride-and-groom wedding cake topper and painted their hair silver and white. He attached his work of art to their mailbox, and for that whole year, I smiled when I saw this token of his creativity and sweetness. My adoptive parents have passed on, but I still keep that mailbox topper in my office.

Your little creation doesn't have to go on a mailbox -- it can sit on the front porch, in your mom's room, or in the living room. Try suggesting it as a father-daughter-daughter project. Break out the paints and enjoy being artists together.

Make a slide show.

A lot of people are now scanning old photographs and creating a computer slide show set to music of favorite songs. Even if you and your sister can't host a big anniversary party, you might be able to do this electronically, and e-mail a copy to friends and family -- have a virtual celebration of sorts. Don't pay a lot for these services; a neighborhood teenager could put this together for you.

Write a letter.

And even though your mom might not realize what's going on, share your heart. Remember her as she was throughout the years, as the mother of your childhood, your teen years when you were no doubt driving her crazy, your young adult years when your life was just coming together -- and who she's been to you all along. Thank her for being the wife, the mother, and the woman she's been. Share how she's influenced you -- and even how much you love and miss her now. Your father will appreciate it for the both of them.

Your dad must be hurting, and he probably misses his wife before she developed dementia, the woman he loved all these years. His anniversary time is bittersweet, so be sensitive to his moods. Take your cues from him. Listen if he needs to talk. Hold him if he needs to cry. Thank him for being a good husband to her. Say the things that you know your mom would say if she could.