Giving Gifts to a Person with Multiple Sclerosis

Avoid Gift-Giving Mistakes with These Tips

Giving Gifts in MS
Giving Gifts in MS. Walker and Walker/Getty Images

Giving a gift seems to get tricky and a little risky after the recipient passes the age of five. People have different tastes and often think they “need” different things than they are getting as gifts. The surge in gift card sales provides concrete data that people much prefer leaving the choice up to the individual who is receiving the gift.

That being said, there are some die-hards that still love to give gifts from the heart—gifts they have chosen themselves, based on some insight into their friend or loved one.

If you are one of these people that enjoys the act of giving special things to your special people, more power to you. However, if one of your special people happens to have multiple sclerosis (MS), here are a few tips to optimize your chances of gift-giving success.

Gifts to Avoid Giving People with MS:

Anything That Makes Noise

This one is a serious no-no for a person with MS who endures the daily challenges of cognitive dysfunction. Gag gifts like singing snowmen or reindeer heads are annoying to most people, but for some people with MS, a song coming out of a singing or dancing whimsical object can derail any conversation or attempt to relax.

You should even think carefully about classier gifts that make noise, like antique clocks or small fountains. Even a tiny fraction of brain cells being “hijacked” by the auditory signals of background noise can slow a person with MS down or lead to important things being forgotten.

Season Tickets to Anything

You may mean well by trying to help a person with MS “get out of the house more.” What better way to do that than getting them a gift that requires scheduling, preplanning, and forces these people to “have fun” on a regular basis?

But the problem is that many people with MS do not know how he or she is going to feel in a couple of hours, much less on a specific day each month.

When a person with MS says they are tired, that is usually a huge understatement of the immobilizing symptom of MS fatigue. In fact, most people living with MS do not know when an MS symptom will go from “annoying” to the point where it interferes with functioning, or at the very least, keeps someone from having a good time.

If you want to enjoy an activity with a person with MS, ask them a couple of questions like:

  • "What time of day is usually your best?"
  • "Do you prefer a quiet brunch to a more social happy hour?"

To make the gift truly special, tell the person with MS that you will not get your feelings hurt if you have to ask a couple of times before actually getting to go out with them.

“Inspirational” Gifts

Please don’t give someone with MS a picture of a mountain with a quote about being able to do anything you put your mind to. Likewise, a picture of a kitten tangled up in yarn with a pithy “try and try again” saying is out of the question. Without going into the overall questionable taste problem with these gifts, to imply that people with MS just need words of encouragement to get past some very real hurdles can be hurtful.

It's probably also best to shy away from gifts with a religious message unless you happen to be very intimate with this person and know not only what their faith means to them, but how and when they choose to incorporate it into their lives.

Same goes for political messages. Do not imply that people with MS are physically better or worse off because a certain president or another politician is in office.

Stuff About MS

There is some really neat and funny stuff out there about MS, like awesome t-shirts, mugs and arm bands, many from MS-related support organizations. But unless you have MS, you probably should not give one of these gifts to someone with MS. What can be hilarious or meaningful to people in the same group may be  upsetting when given by an outsider.

Gifts with a “Should” Message

People with MS likely know that they (like everyone else) “should” exercise more and “should” find the positive side of any situation.

Most smokers (with or without MS) know that they “should” stop smoking, and who among us would not benefit from eating healthier?

It's not wise to tell someone (MS or not) what they “should” do, at least not in the form of a gift like an exercise video or a book about “Chicken Soup” of chronic illness and its blessings. This may imply that MS is a person's fault, or that they have more control over their disease than they think. Those gift messages can cause hurt feelings, the last thing you want to cause for a loved one.

A Surprise Party

This is just a bad idea for anyone, in my opinion. However, for a person with MS, this could be one of those “mention-it-years-later-because-it-was-so-nightmarish” situations.

Just as people with MS cannot usually plan things months in advance, we also need a tiny bit of warning before embarking on something. We may need to schedule a nap and conserve our energy on a day that we know there will be an event. Then there are small but necessary, practical chores to take care of—timing our medications, self-catheterization, extra time needed to look nice if we know there is going to be a celebration.

Surprise parties rob MSers of the control they have over these things to get ready for an exhausting event, as well as plunge them into a chaotic situation that they have not prepared for.

Gifts to Consider Giving People with MS:

While there are a number of gifts you may want to avoid giving a person with MS, here are some gift ideas that can bring lots of cheer:

  • Think of their favorite hobby and buy something related to that. For instance, if a person with MS loves to read mystery novels, buy one from a more obscure author or consider a gift card to a bookstore. If they enjoy nature, buy a beautiful picture book or a plant.
  • Consider donating to their favorite charity.
  • Mail yummy treats to their home like a fresh fruit basket or a collection of their favorite movie snacks.
  • Sign them up for a monthly magazine subscription or coffee or wine club.
  • Make something—a card, a scarf, or cookies.
  • Your presence—a visit or phone call can go a long way.

A Word from Verywell

In the end, trust your instincts and remain thoughtful—gift-giving is an enjoyable, beautiful act and can strengthen your relationship with a person

Edited by Dr. Colleen Doherty, September 2016.

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