The term “legacy” has evolved in the senior living world and also American culture at large. The original, materialistic meaning of “legacy” is being replaced by a more all encompassing understanding of the term that incorporates our emotional and spiritual endowment to our loved ones rather than merely our financial benefaction.
As we mature, it’s natural for our thoughts and concerns to shift from our own gratification to the well-being of the young. Facing mortality, we find solace in the understanding that our lives, our experiences, and our very selves, will have enduring beneficial effects on the world and future generations. Whether our legacy is embodied in the hearts and memories of our loved ones, or through a gift to an important cause, we want to make an impact that we can be proud of.
Our legacy isn’t measured by the size of our fortune or the degree of our fame, and our stories needn’t be epics. As John Lennon sang, “A working class hero is something to be.” Most of us will be satisfied just to pass on some of our most memorable stories, secret family recipes, or treasured family heirlooms.
Sadly, the modern age has seen large parts of Western society failing to appreciate the value of older people’s wisdom and experience. But in recent years, efforts such as the Legacy Project have demonstrated that younger generations have real thirst for knowledge and stories about how their older loved ones lived and thrived in a world that was very different from our own, yet, paradoxically, uncannily similar too. Younger people appreciate that they have much to learn from their older relatives, but they cherish little details just as much as the monumental life-lessons.
Here’s a list of ideas about how you or your older loved one can leave positive and long lasting memories for younger family members and future generations:
Food is much more than our body’s fuel; it is an integral and sacred part of human culture that unites families and transcends generations. Many families strengthen their bond and maintain their identity by passing on recipes from generation to generation. For example, my own family collected all of my grandmother’s recipes, transcribed them, and had several beautiful, hardbound books printed for her children and grandchildren to keep and remember her by. A recipe book can be one of the most profound ways to leave an emotional legacy because scent is the sense most closely linked to memory and emotion. The simple smell of cookies baked using Grandmother’s special recipe can bring her to life in our mind’s eye.
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Video and audio recordings can be a powerful tool to help families remember their older loved ones. You can get started with just a video camera or a tape recorder. In Joan Lunden’s book for caregivers, she recommends using recordings, suggesting that families prepare a long list of interview questions. “This kind of video recording of your family history is priceless,” she says. For inspiration, you might explore the fascinating video interviews of Cornell University’s Legacy Project or the audio recordings of the StoryCorps Memory Initative. For those who need help putting together these recordings, a number of services can help including businesses like Family Legacy Video that can produce a video for you. Seniors who are weary of being videotaped may prefer the audio format. A new iPad app called StoryPress helps seniors “turn their everyday stories into treasured audio story books,” with a number of sample stories available on their website.
The process of making a family tree with your older relative is bound to be quality time. It gives your loved one an opportunity to reminisce about loved ones, and teach you about the lives of family members you may not have known that much about. Include photos where possible to help bring the tree to life. And when it’s completed you can share copies of this unique keepsake with all your family members. Dr. Jeannette Franks even suggests that families include their loved ones’ medical histories to help their younger relatives know what health issues they should be on guard against. While it may strike some as morbid, she advises families to note the relative’s cause of death on the family tree.
Rather than handing off all of your possessions and heirlooms immediately, you can make a time capsule for your descendants to open in the distant future. You could even create multiple time capsules that include mementos for relatives not even born yet to discover. For example, you might make a time capsule to be opened by your living relatives in the year 2100, and include interesting keepsakes that give our descendants a glimpse of our present. Your will can include instructions for handling the time capsule (for example, who will be responsible for it and where it will be kept). Wise-crackers can even show their humor, threatening to haunt from the grave any relative who tampers with the time capsule or attempts to open it early.
In the digital age, video and audio are king, but they can never completely replace the power of the printed word. Seniors with the patience and talent to write their memoirs have a unique opportunity to tell their story exactly as they believe it should be told, and to speak directly to younger family members who they might never meet in person. Writing groups for seniors like the Memoir Project in Boston even teach seniors the skills involved in memoir writing to help them “turn memories into coherent narratives with lasting value.” The National Day of Listening includes a list of “great questions” – that could serve as excellent writing prompts or interview questions. Questions include “What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?” and “Have you ever experienced any miracles?”
Philanthropy is a traditional means of legacy building. In choosing which organizations and causes to give to, seniors get to demonstrate their most revered values, and the show importance of giving through their own actions. Of course their donation will also make a make a real difference in a cause they care about. Charitable gifts needn’t be at the scale of Andrew Carnegie’s — every little bit helps. Potential donors can identify legitimate nonprofits at websites like Charity Navigator, which maintains a list of 4-Star Charities.
How have loved ones in your family worked to craft their legacy? Do you have interesting plans for your own legacy? We welcome your comments below.