Last Updated: April 30, 2015
By Jeannette Franks, PhD
Putting life in order in old age is a challenging, crucial and
rewarding task. Most of us would want to leave behind more than
garage sale giveaways. The elderly leave us a priceless gift when
they bestow their knowledge, skills and history to family and
beloved friends. Helping a person with the task of leaving a legacy
is an opportunity to benefit everyone involved.
Many families and individuals wait until it is too late. After
my mother died I found many letters, photos and maps from the early
70s when my parents had lived in Kuwait. I called the University of
Washington Archives and learned that they would love to have this
material, especially her letters--a unique source of primary
history. My mother would have been thrilled, but I find it sad that
she wasn't the one to offer her correspondence for posterity.
Read below for some examples on how individuals have made a
lasting imprint on their loved ones' lives:
1. Collect Favorite Family Recipes
Gertrude1, a brilliant master of the kitchen, created
hand-crafted cookbooks in 3-ring binders for her six daughters.
They treasure her recipes and the time she's spent making certain
that they could recreate her magnificent dishes.
Perhaps your mom is past making albums or remembering her
recipes. Reminiscing together can still be meaningful. Try baking
together in your kitchen. You may be surprised what familiar
activities and delicious smells can trigger.
2. Create Personalized Photo Albums
Jan, the capable mother of three successful adult children and
proud grandmother of three, elevates photo albums to the highest
level. She keeps one for each grandchild. More important, she and
her husband take each child each year on a trip to an exciting
destination such as Europe, the Galapagos Islands, and Costa Rica.
The photos grandpa takes, along with mementoes, ticket stubs,
descriptions and itineraries provide an elegant and indelible
documentation of their expeditions. I wish Jan would transform some
of my shoeboxes full of photos for me!
Gather photos and other mementoes, as described above, to create
personalized photo albums or books for those you love. Beloved
children, grandchildren and friends will cherished their gift and
memories with you.
3. Travel While You Can
Juanita, a highly-regarded gerontologist, together with her
husband took her mother with mid-stage Alzheimer's
disease to Florence, Italy on an Elderhostel program. The
trip provided quality time for all three of them. And because they
stayed in a good hotel in two separate rooms, services like
laundry, housekeeping, and room service took care of many of the
caregiver tasks Juanita performed at home. Instead of cleaning the
bathroom or preparing meals, Juanita went out with her mom and
husband to sample the local cuisine, either as a threesome or with
the larger group.
The one-week trip included an expert art historian, all their
arrangements, and guided walks and museums trips. It was paced for
older people, with plenty of time for rest-and at siesta time
Juanita and her husband enjoyed lengthy walks through the romantic
city. For more information check out the web site: http://www.roadscholar.org.
Going places together, whether to France or your local state
park, can make pleasant new memories or help happy old memories
emerge. Elderhostel, a non-profit travel organization for seniors
and their families/guests, provides a structured environment, with
a focus on accessibility and learning. Only one of you needs to be
over 60, so don't discount the possibility of traveling
4. Create a Video
Veda, a vivacious mother of four, wanted to leave her children a
video of advice and stories passed down from the generations. The
video turned out to be a cherished family belonging that has helped
all the generations not only learn and respect their ancestors, but
also feel tied to generations past.
Leaving a legacy by creating a video or audio cassette of an
older person's memories is a wonderful activity. Wendy Lustbader
describes the process of interviewing the elderly in her
book,What's Worth Knowing, (Tarcher, 2001):
Asking older people what they have learned from experience is an
act of respect. I have found that it helps to have questions at
hand that convey both need and hope-the need for special insight
about what it means to live well, and the hope of using such wisdom
to make a better life for the questioner. Here are some of the
questions I use.
- What do you know now that you wish you'd known when you were
- What advice would you give a young person just starting out in
- If you could live your life over again, what would you do
differently? What would you keep the same?
Things to keep in mind when interviewing/videoing someone with
When talking to people with Alzheimer's, be sensitive and
circumspect about correcting them if they have difficulty recalling
things. Instead, acknowledge the true emotions that emerge-positive
or negative. If mom forgets that your father died last year and
asks when he is coming home, don't remind her of the painful truth.
Ask her to recount how they met, their engagement, or some other
happy time. She may not know what she had for breakfast, but
probably she can still describe her wedding dress in loving
5. Make Donations/Contributions to Society
Rose, a lively lady in her late 80s, declares, "My kids don't
need a thing--and they don't expect anything either. They tell me,
spend it all!" And she does. "My legacy is the contributions I've
made to the museums and cultural institutions in Springfield. I've
got my name on plaques! That's something they can be proud of."
While leaving a legacy is not about the stuff, keep in mind the
cliché that one person's trash is another person's treasure.
Donating clothes and household items to charities, can be great for
those in need or for cultural interest; just make sure there's
mutual agreement in the family.
6. Include Family Members in Activities
Sometimes the last years of life are beset with frailty. Toward
the end of his life, my dad could barely hold a hammer, but he
loved sanding the hand-built kayak my husband was working on. That
quiet, meaningful activity was more valuable for them than any
Be sure to continue to include frail older people in family
gatherings and events. Thanksgiving at the assisted living facility will never
compare with Thanksgiving at your house. It may be a daunting
challenge to get grandma, her wheelchair, and her Sunday best all
organized for a wedding, a baptism or Mother's Day; but taking her
to where the action is will be its own reward.
7. Document & Share Family Health Histories
My dear friend Ann comes from a large family with numerous aunts
and uncles. When Ann's sister was diagnosed with breast
cancer, they questioned their mother about their family medical
history. With multiple siblings on both her mother and father's
sides, Ann drew a genogram to create a useful picture of who died
of what, as well as information about other important medical
conditions. This information helped Ann and her sisters commit to
annual mammograms as well as glaucoma
testing (glaucoma runs in families).
Sometimes what you learn about your family can help you prevent
illness and perhaps even save your life (and those of others in
your family). A family health history is very important for not
only preventative health, but also for health awareness and
Jeannette Franks, PhD, is a passionate
gerontologist who teaches at University of Washington and Bastyr
University; she is the author of a book on assisted living and
1 Some names in this article have been changed to