For Chris, choosing gifts is like writing a story: By matching the character to the gift, you learn more about people and what they value.
"Grandpa, what would you like for your birthday?"
"Oh, I don't need anything."
That was my grandfather. Always. He didn't need anything or want anything—he was more comfortable being the giver than the recipient. So I know all about the problem of what to give a man who's turning 80 for his birthday.
Whether he's a grandfather, a good friend, a business colleague, or just a neighborly octogenarian—it's not surprising you're racking your brain trying to come up with ideas for something he doesn't already have. And you don't want to go overboard, or you'll hear the dreaded, "Why'd you do that! You shouldn't have done that!"
Here are some moderately priced, thoughtful gift ideas that should pleasantly surprise an 80-year-old man.
Music From His Younger Years
For many years, my grandpa was too busy working to spend much time with his grandkids. Later on, we were the ones too busy working. During the last couple of decades of his life, though, we all managed to make time to just sit around together. He was never a great conversationalist, so what did we do?
We listened to music. He liked mostly Jazz Age music from the 1920s and 1930s: Dean Martin, the Mills Brothers, Judy Garland, Perry Como, Louis Armstrong, and Eddie Cantor. After listening to these oldies with him—and it was great to hear him sing along—I began to like 'em, too! One of his favorites was this album of Dean Martin songs. He'd sing along with "Sway" and I'd sing along with the peppier "Hey Brother Pour the Wine." When his CD went bust from having been played so much, I got him a new one to replace it.
If your birthday man already has a full complement of Jazz Age music, then try albums by Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and the Andrews Sisters from the 1940s, when he was a teenager.
New Clothes to Replace Worn-Out Threads
In the past I'd made the mistake of gifting my grandfather with a VCR and videocassettes. At the time, that was my idea of "bringing him up to the modern age." He never could learn to work that machine. I learned that he wanted different kinds of gifts.
So when he turned 80, I noticed that although he had an extensive wardrobe, his clothes had gotten kind of worn, and he was reluctant to replace them. So I did the practical thing (that's big in our family).
I went to TJ Maxx and got him new underwear. I picked up some extra socks, a new pair of slippers, a couple of sets of pajamas, and a new velour bathrobe that he loved to lounge around in . . . and that he considered the height of luxury.
These gifts were all practical, and not sentimental, but very much appreciated - because they were the kinds of gifts he and grandma had given me for so many years.
Old Western Novels
One gift I got my Grandpa one birthday (it wasn't his 80th, but close) was a stack of Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey Western novels. He wasn't much of a reader otherwise, but I knew he'd like these. As a kid, I enjoyed Louis L'Amour, but Zane Grey was in the "old guy" category for me, but I liked that reading Westerns was something I had in common with my grandfather.
If you haven't read, or even heard of, these authors, they wrote literary "cowboy" westerns before, during, and after the Golden Age. Like many novels from that time, what was once considered pulp is now considered quality Americana.
Many Zane Greys are out of print. If you do get him a used copy, dress it up nicely and point out that it is pretty rare now. You could even say it's an antique—that's likely to get a laugh!
Photographs and a Scrapbook
Are there family photographs the man who is turning eighty hasn't seen yet—or hasn't seen in many years?
Do you have new photos of family and friends he'd like to see? If not, take some.
Then have copies made. Enlarge them. Frame them. If he's tech-savvy—and some 80-year-olds these days are—make digital copies and load them onto a digital photo album.
Or assemble a physical photo album of visual memories that he can pore over for hours.
In addition to the photos, a leather-bound scrapbook containing old letters, photos and nostalgic documents is even better. Include your own thoughts, or gather quotes from friends. You can create a personalized book he will delight in. It won't take much time and it will mean hours of future entertainment for him and his family.
Books About History
I learned something talking to my grandpa about the days of yore, and reading history books focused on that era. The generation that grew up during the Great Depression and World War II pulled together and, with their children, laid the foundations of what we now know as the modern middle class.
A nostalgia gift can help your gentleman recall the better parts of those times with fondness and sentiment, and maybe even a new perspective, especially on the Great Depression.
In Something Funny Happened on My Way to My 80th Birthday, the author recalls old stories of being a child during the Great Depression, living through World War II and other anecdotes of the past through personal vignettes and poems.
Lastly, even if your gentleman octogenarian is not very religious, there's a good chance he doesn't hold with "all that religious apathy nonsense."
In other words—he'd love a gift that signifies his faith. If he's Catholic, for example, give him a beautiful cross.
A symbol of his faith will be meaningful and make him truly glad to receive your gift, whether or not he's very religious.
What About a Surprise Party?
While this isn't a story about my grandpa—it's about his wife—I think it's still relevant.
When my grandmother turned 80, we did something that shocked her: we gave her a surprise birthday party. The whole family was there, including many people she hadn't seen in years. Grandma was the kind of person who took care of others. It never occurred to her that people would fuss about her that much.
She's gone now, but I have such wonderful pictures of her with a glowing smile at her 80th birthday party.
We never did organize a surprise party for my grandfather, who passed away at 99. But we did have many parties on his later milestones, and he had a ball.
I found the elderly men in my grandpa's circle to be very social people—in a laconic way. They liked a fuss made about them. Something as simple as ribbons, mylar balloons, personalized mint tins, Dean Martin music, old photo albums and a cake with friends and family gathered around can create a warm party atmosphere. And if young people in the family are there dancing, all the better!