How to Help an Older Adult Create a Lasting Legacy

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A lasting legacy for friends and family

To help older adults recognize and understand their legacy, consider a family legacy project. A legacy project will help them celebrate their lives and memories -- and allow family and friends to share in the experience.

Even a frail or mentally impaired adults can participate on some level and will likely appreciate the result, whether it's a poster, a family recipe book, or a celebration in the park. A legacy project will also give everyone a memento of their lives that will live on after they're gone.

There are countless ways to create a legacy project. The approach you choose will depend on factors like the talents and interests those involved in the project, their family history and culture, and their health. Make it a multigenerational effort by recruiting children and grandchildren to participate. The final results may be large or modest, depending on everyone's time and inclinations, and the materials can range from photos and glue sticks to fabric and thread. Here are some ideas to get you going:

How to Start a Legacy Project

Kick off an ongoing photo project

Create a poster or a memory book that documents the life passages of those in your care, and keep it up to date with recent photos of grandchildren, graduation parties, and family trips. They may enjoy going through the photos with you and helping you write captions.

Create a memoir or an oral history

Many senior centers and assisted living facilities now offer classes on memoir writing for seniors. If you can't find a class or those in your care don't want to write their own story, encourage them to talk to you with a tape recorder running. Ask about their childhood, their experience during the war, their memories of their own parents. Talk to other family members to flesh out the family history and create an annotated family tree. Type up the results and include photos and illustrations.

Encourage a work-related legacy project

If their professional accomplishments are an important part of their legacy, help them maintain their connections to their life's work. Encourage them to subscribe to journals in their area of expertise or to serve as a mentor for a young colleague, if they're up to it. Keep an eye out for articles and books that might interest them.

If they've written books or papers or created pieces of art, make sure their life's work isn't just gathering dust in a box somewhere. Instead, create a special shelf to hold the books and papers or devote a wall to the paintings.

Discover Ideas to Help You Create a Lasting Legacy

Lend a hand for a crafts project

If crafts have played a major role in in the lives of those you're caring for, help create a craft-based legacy project. You may want to work together on a quilt or crocheted blanket, for example. If they aren't up to participating, let them choose patterns and colors and show them the work in progress when you visit.

If they've collected a lifetime's worth of rocks or coins, encourage them to show their treasures to their grandchildren. You might want to put the collection on display on a special shelf in their home.

If meals and cooking have always played a strong role in the family's culture, consider putting together a collection of some favorite recipes: the caramel sauce always made for Sunday dinner, for instance, or a relative's special French toast. Ask other family members to contribute their own favorite recipes. Grandchildren can illustrate the final product.

Encourage them to do volunteer work

The older generation often feels a strong impulse to give back to their community and gets great satisfaction from reaching out to others. If they're up to it, you can help them find volunteer work that will help give their lives structure and meaning. Volunteering an hour a week as a history tutor, for example, or calling on a disabled person living alone will help an older adult feel useful while enriching another life in the process.

Embrace family reunions and celebrations

Be sure to celebrate life passages like anniversaries, birthdays, and graduations. Consider organizing a trip, if they're up to it. They'll also enjoy a family picnic with balloons and homemade cards, even if it has to take place in the nursing home cafeteria. Create a photo album or colorful poster to commemorate the event.

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

over 3 years, said...

After my mom passed away I found how much easier it is on everyone to have all ur final plans in order. So I went ahead and have made all my arrangements right done to the music and paid for it. So now my children just have to deal with getting rid of some personal belongings and sell my house and cars and whatever they don't want inside the house. Takes a big load off them and you.

over 5 years, said...

I'd imagine a legacy project could be a sensitive topic to approach some elderly people about as they come towards the end of their life. My father has recently been diagnosed with dementia and whilst we are just beginning our journey, we are aware that the outcome will not be good. I am hearing more and more stories about his life and family that I haven't heard before and have a strong desire to capture them all now, whilst I can. All too often people miss out on the opportunity to record their legacy or that of their loved one by leaving it too late. How often have you been to a funeral to hear something about that person you hadn't know before. We added such a topic to our blog page So whilst you will need to engage in the activity tactfully, the results will yield enormous benefits for generations to come.

over 6 years, said...

my wife created at 10 minute video of her dad's life for his 90th birthday. She's a graphic designer so is pretty computer literate. The final version still required that she hire a professional graphic designer to get it to it's final state. She worked with her dad (he insisted on final editorial control :-). During his second career he and a partner had started a thriving small business. Now that the video is done, he is in a panic because he is convinced that his partner will create a video that makes the Partner look good and him bad. Sometimes you just can't win.

about 7 years, said...

More detail on ways of helping structure the oral history. Suggestions of comments or questions which could help to start the reminiscences without sounding like "So now that you're dying, tell me all about the stuff you should have told me before about your parents and life ..." Well, I'm not that bad, but some of the ways that I think about starting off sound a lot like that to me and my father is not someone who a) wants to admit that his life is almost done; b) is given to reminiscing, and c) talks freely about anything ... h'e a thinker not a talker.

about 7 years, said...

I was so pleased to find all the great information in this site. It was by chance I came upon it. I am sole careiver to my husband and we are crazy, nute, in love, after 25 years. He is pretty much confined to the home but he has his days planned with TV & computer. Anyway, I look forward to reading more info from your helpful and informative site. Thank you, Simserely, Nola Cousart Green, Spokane, Wa.

over 7 years, said...

My mother has always suffered from low self-esteem/self-worth. As her dementia increased I made a couple of books for her. The first was simply a picture book of family and friends. It begins with her and her family, then Dad and his family, their family with each of us kids and our family in birth order,and ends with dear friends. The books is not a scrapbook of memorable times, simply the people in her life so she can match pictures to visitors, or simply remember the people. Each picture lists the person's name, relationship to her and their birth/death dates. Because my mother and I are quite close and I have so many marvelous memories of growing up wih her, I made a book titled "Do you remember..." in which I put pictures (clip-art, magazine clippings, etc.) and phrases relative to certain memories, especially crazy things like Do you remember...the day we both wore our bras backwards? Too much info, perhaps, but one of our treasured memories of simply being silly and laughing together. Or when she met my girlfriend and me at the local pizza place to which we had walkeed (not old enough to drive) and she said to place the order, she was on her way, and the three of us sat on the curb outside and ate the pizza. These memories are her legacy of what she gave to me, her common sense and especially her sense of humor and love. She can look at the book any time and remember the events. Even if she can't remember the specific events, she has the emotional warmth of having given ~me~ the memory.