top of page

How to throw a birthday bash for a Great Grandma

I hosted a birthday party for my mother’s 85th, and never had so many comments about how much fun it was for the guests.  Using my experience as a gerontologist, I incorporated ideas from reminiscence and activity training to create a multi-generational event.

I used Evite to send invitations and information to the 40 guests, which included mom’s friends, former co-workers, family members, and their friends.  With guests ranging from nine years old to octogenarians, the activities needed to have mass appeal.  The three-hour party was held on a Sunday afternoon, after lunch and before dinner, to simplify the food.  It was also important that older guests didn’t have to travel in the dark.  An active line dancer, mom’s teachers agreed to lead line dancing instruction for the last part of the party.


Since I have access to a clubhouse, the venue was the easy part except for obtaining event insurance.  Because I was serving wine and beer, I was quoted over $200 for one day!  The best price I found was $100 at for $1 million in liability coverage, including host liquor liability.  If you’re using your home, make sure you have liability coverage.


85th birthday balloons, candy buffet with tiny lights

I had a candy buffet with hard candies, licorice, mints, chocolates, and full-size candy bars.  We used clear containers from the dollar store and tiny lights to add sparkle with clear scoops for small candies. Guests created their own goodie bags to take home.  Some of the candy came from a specialty store and the rest from bulk grocery stores and Sam’s Club.  I wanted a nice display and may have gone overboard.  This is a lot of sugar but most of the guests had a sweet tooth.  There were many food options for people with diabetes or other issues.

Refreshments included white cake and 48 chocolate and red velvet cupcakes.   In addition to chips, dip, salsa, and chicken wings, family members brought potluck dishes for hors d’oeuvres.  People with food allergies and intolerances appreciate small tent cards with ingredients for things that aren’t easily identifiable.

Photos by Jackie Houlton

To keep the party moving, there was a schedule.  During the activities, people could eat and talk.

Party Schedule

Guests arrive – 30 minutes

Bingo – 30 minutes

Cake – 20 minutes to sing and serve

Pub Trivia – 30 minutes (continue to eat)

Name that tune – 30 minutes

Line dancing – 30 minutes

Party ends – please go home, we only have an hour to clean up

Bingo game projected on screen, players at a table, paper bingo cards with X's


The bingo game turned out to be very easy.  I ordered paper bingo cards from Amazon.  They came in sets of 5, so that’s how many games we had.  I altered the game type based on how long it took to finish each game.  Originally, I planned to use an old bingo game with numbered balls, but my son found a program that generates bingo games.  We have a projector, and there was already a screen in the room.  You could easily connect a computer to a large TV to accomplish the same thing.  There’s something about bingo that’s universal.  Any age can play, and everyone wanted to participate.  There were extra prizes in case of multiple bingo winners.

Pub Trivia against a brick background

Pub Trivia Game

I set this up as a team activity so people of different ages could partner together.  Since the party was for an older adult and more half of the guests were over 50, most of the questions were aimed at them.  There were a couple of questions that younger people might know.  You have to give people time to think and discuss the questions so I only had 12 questions (some multi-part) for the 30 minutes.


You can download my party planner with game questions, song lists, answer sheets, supply, and to-do lists.


Name that Tune

Name that tune sign

This game took some time to accomplish.  Using the Billboard Top 100 lists from every decade, I selected 20 songs that were very popular from 1959 to 1987.  They are songs that you would have heard everywhere at the time.  This is unfair to younger people, but some are still well-known.  I purchased the songs I didn’t already own and chose a 30-second snippet that did not contain the chorus or name of the song.  There are many programs that can trim music. Since the game was a PowerPoint presentation, it was very easy to trim the music inside of PowerPoint.

The answers were revealed through a compilation of YouTube music videos of each song.  You would have to know how to do that.  If not, the answers can be displayed in slides with photos in PowerPoint.  People really enjoyed seeing the original artists performing the songs in the reveal video.  My party planner has a link to the playlist on YouTube.  Note:  it took forever to score the answers!

Music triggers memories and emotions.  For more information on Music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs), check out my article about music and memory research and creating your own playlist.

Group participation activity

If you don’t have an instructor for simple line dancing or have enough room, you can have a sing-along. People used to sing a lot more than they do now.  Songs like We Will Rock You, Yellow Submarine, Hey Jude, Benny and the Jets, Living on a Prayer, Margaritaville, YMCA and American Pie come to mind.  Your group may be into other genres so it will have to be customized.  Think about the music that most of the guests would know but make sure the guest of honor knows the songs.  Another alternative is a lip sync battle, but you may want to enlist participants before the party.  Trying to recruit people at the event slows things down.

Game Prizes

For bingo prizes, we planted succulents in colorful pots.  They were fairly large and ended up costing about $8 each.  It would be cheaper to cultivate your own succulents in advance.  (Succulents are extremely popular now – poachers are taking them from national parks to sell in Asia!)

The extra prizes were Redbox rental codes that I got online and then designed cards with the secret codes.  Pub trivia was done in teams, so I needed a number of prizes.  Starbucks gift cards were the prizes for this game with an Amazon gift card for the Name the Tune grand prize.

Considerations for older adults

  1. Do not produce a “This Is Your Life” photo montage. That will seem more like a memorial service.

  2. Consider hearing and vision limitations. Having a PA system makes it easier for the hard of hearing to participate.

  3. Make your PowerPoint slides simple with high contrast and large fonts.

  4. The venue should be accessible with no tripping hazards.

  5. Don’t serve alcohol if you know it will cause problems.

Silver punch bowl with mock champagne punch

Mock Champagne Punch

2 L Ginger ale

46 fl oz can pineapple juice

64 fl oz bottle white grape juice

Make an ice ring using ginger ale.  Refrigerate liquids until ready to combine.

Download the complete party plan here.

bottom of page