Why It's Important to Create a Lasting Legacy

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Legacy: What it means and why it's important

The word legacy is frequently used to describe the property that people leave their heirs when they die. But every human being also leaves behind a nonmaterial legacy -- one that's harder to define but often far more important. This legacy comprises a lifetime of relationships, accomplishments, truths, and values, and it lives on in those whose lives they've touched.

Recent research has established that, as people age, they continue to face important developmental milestones. Aging, it turns out, provides opportunities for learning and emotional growth that can be deep and sustaining. Creating a meaningful legacy is a key part of this developmental process.

In his book How to Say It to Seniors, geriatric expert David Solie defines a personal legacy as "the unique footprint we want to leave for our time on earth." Physician and gerontologist Gene Cohen describes the same phenomenon in a different way. Older people, he says in his book The Mature Mind, are driven by an urgent desire "to find larger meaning in the story of their lives through a process of review, summarizing, and giving back."

There's much you can do to support friends and relatives as they sort through the past and assess the contributions they've made and the memories they'll leave behind. This process can be deeply healing and gratifying.

Recognizing someone's legacy will help you understand her better and appreciate her more -- and you may learn something about yourself in the process. For the person you're caring for, it provides the opportunity to celebrate a life well lived.

As David Solie says, "Aging in this culture is seen as a disease and a failure. Older people internalize that message and feel like failures. Our message to them should be that they are not failures. They have a lot to be proud of, and they are loved and appreciated. They can die as they have lived -- with integrity and meaning. That is what the legacy-building process is all about."

Help Your Loved One Search for Meaning

Most older adults are driven to take on the search for their legacy, whether they're conscious of it or not. If you pay attention to someone close to you, you'll detect signs that she's looking back into the past and reviewing her life choices. She's likely to talk about the watershed events that helped determine her life's path as well as the people who influenced them. She may wish to contact old friends, visit the street where she grew up, or take a trip to a place that holds special meaning.

If you want to support her through this process, the most important thing you can do is show up and pay attention. Rather than tuning out or changing the subject, try to really listen to what she has to say. It may be difficult to listen to well-worn memories and anecdotes, particularly if you've heard them before. But the stories she tells over and over often hold a key to the legacy issues she's working through.

You'll find her reminiscences more interesting if you take an active role. Ask probing questions to help your friend or relative view his or her experiences from different perspectives. Think of creative ways to stimulate her memories and reflections.

For example, if your father mentions a buddy he flew with as a bomber pilot during the war, ask him about this friend. Find out if they ever spoke again after the war was over and when he last heard from him. Do a little research. If the friend is still alive, you could help your father write a letter or plan a visit, if possible.

Encourage your father to talk about other wartime buddies, day-to-day life in the military, where he went, and what he saw. Ask to see photos, if he has them, or look at a map together so your dad can show you where he was stationed and the routes he flew.

Exploring Someone's Legacy: How to Start

  • Let your friend or relative take the lead when exploring legacy issues. For example, your father may have mentioned his Air Force buddy as a way to explore the subject of the war itself and unresolved feelings he may have about his war experience. If you miss the signals and focus exclusively on his relationship with his buddy, you may miss the opportunity to learn more about experiences that hold particular meaning for him. Listen carefully for the underlying themes he's exploring, and ask questions to draw him out.
  • Be open to painful subjects and memories if they come up. It's natural to wish to spare the person's feelings -- and your own -- particularly if a topic is one that has been taboo for as long as you can remember. But your grandfather's drinking problem, your father's nightmarish childhood, or your mother's infidelity are all a part of your family's history -- and your parents' legacy. Dealing with these subjects isn't easy, but if your discussions are conducted in an atmosphere of love and honesty, these family secrets will lose their terrifying power -- and your conversations will bring you and your family closer.
  • Avoid control issues. Your family friend is frail but refuses to move out of her house. Your father won't take the medication his physician prescribes. These types of control issues are common between people in midlife and older adults. Because of the many losses they face each day, older adults tend to become rigid and resistant to change. It's important to avoid power struggles when you can because they can strain your relationship and undermine your ability to help them in their crucial legacy work.

If the person you're caring for isn't impaired, it's best to tell her your opinion, give her your best advice, and then drop the issue -- unless it's a critical health matter, in which case you may want to get her doctor to weigh in.

  • With your parents, accept your own role. Most parents consider raising their children to be among their greatest accomplishments, so as an adult child, you are your parents' legacy. Your relationship with them is very important and it's worth working on if there are problems or misunderstandings that have never been resolved. Just spending time with you is important, too, and something they likely cherish. Grandchildren are also part of your parents' legacy, of course, so these relationships should be nurtured as well.
  • Address a negative legacy with a relative. What if you have a difficult or practically nonexistent relationship with a parent or another relative? Depending on your history together, you may want to contact her before it's too late, to see whether any kind of reconciliation is possible. In some cases, resolving your differences isn't possible or even desirable and there's no point in forcing it, but people do tend to mellow with age, and you may find that she's anxious to reconnect and move beyond your differences while there's still time.

Remember that building a legacy isn't a discrete task with a beginning and an end. It takes a lifetime to construct a legacy, and the person you're caring for will continue to work on hers as long as she lives. In the meantime, making the most of your time together will add to the rich tapestry of her life -- and to your memories of her after she's gone.

As David Solie says, helping someone build her legacy may be heartbreaking and difficult at times, and you're sure to hear things you don't want to hear. "But you'll hear wonderful, inspiring, amazing things, too," he says. "This is [her] final debriefing, the end of [her] story, and you don't want to miss it."

For ways to help an older adult give her legacy tangible form, see Helping Your Parents Create a Meaningful Legacy: Practical Ideas.

Connie Matthiessen

Constance (Connie) Matthiessen, senior editor, has worked as a healthcare and environmental journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting and has written for WebMD, Consumer Health Interactive, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, BabyCenter. See full bio