Leaving A Legacy: Finding Meaning


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:


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.

Take-Away IdeaPerhaps 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.


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!

Take-Away IdeaGather 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.


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.

Take-Away IdeaGoing 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.


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.

Take-Away IdeaLeaving 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:

  1. What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were young?
  2. What advice would you give a young person just starting out in life?
  3. If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently? What would you keep the same?

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.

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.”

Take-Away IdeaWhile 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.

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 conversation.

Take-Away IdeaBe 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.

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).

Take-Away IdeaSometimes 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