I suggest the Sony RX-100. While I haven't used it myself, I've read many positive reviews for it. It is one of the best compact cameras out there, for 650USD. You can read Steve Huff's review of it here: [link]
I know you mentioned you wanted to give her a DSLR, but I'd suggest at least checking this out before continuing your search.
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to reply or send me a note — I'd be happy to help.
In terms of physical build it is. Have you handled any Nikon P&S for an extended period of time? If it's going to get fairly regular use they will begin to notice lens errors and possibly the lens not retracting at all. The lens gears are made from plastic like a comb, and if they are handled roughly or often enough, the teeth on the gears can and do shed. They get stuck in the body and cause malfunctions.
Canon and Sony have higher quality build materials (I believe both use metal gears). This reduces the possibility of shed teeth/broken gears.
I’m inclined to agree with =Xcetera. Your mom would probably appreciate something that can fit in a purse or a pocket and still take great snaps, plus be able to record a bit of video. I’d maybe check out one of the Canon Powershots or Sony Cyber-Shots. Point and shoots are much better these days than even just a few years ago in terms of optical quality, owing mostly to better image processors and better noise reduction algorithms. Heck, even an iPhone 4S or 5 makes a great camera, and has the added bonus of being a phone.
It doesn't sound like your mom is very interested in learning all the ins and outs of photography, so a DSLR is probably not the right choice for her. Put it this way - if she will only be shooting on Automatic and doesn't care for learning aperture and shutter speed, then she might as well be shooting on a nice point and shoot, or even a bridge.
Tiny-PhotographerFeatured By OwnerDec 4, 2012Hobbyist Photographer
Based on my experience and buying my mom a DSLR for Christmas - I agree with Xcetera. I bought my mom one a few years ago and she doesn't use it for what it's meant to be used for; she leaves it on Automatic and doesn't care for learning about the Manual settings. If your mom is anything like mine then it'll be best to get her a nice point and shoot.