by Jeannette Franks, PhD, a passionate gerontologist who teaches at University of Washington and Bastyr University; she is the author of a book on assisted living and numerous articles.
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:
TAKE-AWAY IDEA – 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.
TAKE-AWAY IDEA – 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.
TAKE-AWAY IDEA – 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 together.
TAKE-AWAY IDEA – 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 young?
What advice would you give a young person just starting out in life?
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 Alzheimer’s…
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 detail.
TAKE-AWAY IDEA – 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.
TAKE-AWAY IDEA – 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.
TAKE-AWAY IDEA – 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 diagnosis.
1 Some names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.
Update: January 2018