Life in the Rear-View Mirror
By Barbara Worthington

Older adults’ life review preserves elders’ life histories for family, friends, and the community, reinforcing the value and importance of the individual’s existence.

The powerful elements of life review have emerged as the basis for directed or deliberate reminiscence among older adults. In the midst of the third age, it’s not unusual for elders to ponder the decades that have comprised their lives, examining the relationships, triumphs, challenges, and special events. Often, such a review serves to outline an individual’s legacy or emphasize the value of a life well spent.

Although throughout recent memory, older adults have enjoyed nostalgic returns to the days of their youth, early marriage, births of children, vacations, graduations, and weddings, Robert N. Butler, MD, president and CEO of the International Longevity Center in New York, identified reminiscence as a valuable psychological process. The process enables older adults to view their lives as a personal continuum of particular significance—and a source of enhanced self-esteem.

Psychologists, therapists, and aging experts view an organized life review as an important event in the lives of older adults. Such a review can take a number of different forms: autobiographical, a personal history collected by family members and preserved in some form, information collected in a group setting, or professional organizations that gather information aimed at eliciting specific facts in order to develop an elder’s biography.

In addition to building strong relationships, life review increases elders’ life satisfaction, prevents or decreases depression, increases feelings of competence, increases social interaction, and affords older adults the opportunity to share their wisdom, according to Beth Sanders, founder and CEO of “People are reminded of their accomplishments, and they see that they do have important knowledge to share with their children and grandchildren,” she says.

“It creates an eternal record and reference point for individuals, their families, and communities,” says Peter Gudmundsson, CEO for Priceless Legacy Company in Dallas. “It provides invaluable and irreplaceable validation and affirmation that one’s life had meaning and importance to the self, family, and community.”

Life review enables older adults to share memories of childhood, important individuals and events in their lives, and even the value of lessons learned with their family members, friends, and communities. “There is no greater gift or legacy to give than one’s life story,” says Sarah McCue, PhD, cofounder of The Remembering Site in Washington, DC.

The methods generally take similar form. Organizers gather basic life facts, such as chronologies, names of people and places, and impressions and opinions related to various events. For example, survivors of World War II may be asked, “How did it feel to be away from home and fighting a war?” Elders are also asked to share their wisdom from lessons they’ve learned or experiences they’ve endured.

Such recall serves a valuable purpose in elders’ lives, says Gudmundsson. It provides therapeutic benefits, sometimes enabling older adults to let go of past mistakes and embrace the inevitable passage of time. “It’s also flattering to know that the family and community care enough to listen and want to record [the life story],” he says.

Life Review Process

Gathering and preserving elders’ information can take a variety of forms. Interviews conducted by family members often offer a sense of comfort to the elder. “It’s very rewarding for family members or [institutional] staff or friends to connect in person or by phone with loved ones,” says Sanders. “Staff members in a community setting learn so much when they have the opportunity to really get to know the older adults around them. It changes everything. We see quality increase in community settings when life story recording becomes ingrained in the lifestyle.”

“A nonfamily member [such as a professional consultant] can often get a more candid appraisal from the subject than a family member,” says Gudmundsson. “But a family member is still better than nothing.”

“It’s also possible to use a personal historian,” says Sanders, noting that the Association of Personal Historians offers resources to assist in recalling and recording life histories.

The length of time required to thoroughly explore the past varies. It may take as little as several hours or stretch into a period of several months. There’s no set timing to complete one’s life review, according to McCue. Timing can also depend on the health and stamina of the subject, says Gudmundsson.

Some companies provide questionnaires designed to prompt the recall of events over a lifetime. They explore such questions as: As a child, did you have a pet? What was its name? Did you go to college? What was your roommate’s name? 

Some older adults particularly enjoy the exciting adventure into the past. They may have a regular volunteer who comes to visit and work cooperatively with the elder, according to Sanders. “Sometimes older adults don’t want the process to end,” she says. “The process is more important to them than the finished product.”

Gudmundsson finds it helpful to review photographs from older adults’ early childhood, teen years, early career, starting a family, and other milestone events. After reviewing pictures, open-ended questions provoke the recall of specific events. He says some older adults like to focus on service, while others choose to focus on work, and others discuss family and hobbies. It’s a very personal choice.

An elder’s life review “puts one’s life into perspective,” says Dennis Stack, founder of Project StoryKeeper. “It provides a bridging opportunity for disparate generations of the family to interact in a meaningful way through a mutually beneficial experience.” Such a review often prompts a renewed or rediscovered sense of purpose for older adults, creating a “validation of life achievements,” he says.

Older adults are welcome to include anything that comes to mind, says McCue. “How you lived your life will be fascinating to many people—not just those in your family.”

Let’s Not Go There

Everyone’s life includes both high points and low points. Gudmundsson says that within his organization, officials typically ask open-ended questions to which older adults always have the right to respond or ask to move on to another topic. They may choose not to discuss the death of a child or a tragic accident that occurred in their early years. “You don’t know without asking,” he says. But it’s a policy to respect elders’ sensitivities and desire to avoid painful memories.

Stack finds that when tragedy is a part of elders’ lives, sometimes they choose to revisit events without prompting. “It does provide the opportunity for a cathartic relief,” he says. Additionally, he says, “Much can be beneficially learned from how people deal with the challenges that life provides.” Relating such stories can serve future generations to better prepare to handle adversity in their own lives. In general, Stack says the process doesn’t seek to delve into stressful experiences in older adults’ lives in the life review process.

Sanders agrees that sometimes older adults choose not to think about or discuss tragic, difficult times in their lives. “It’s always their own choice to share or not to share.”  She’s found through her experiences that everyone has had negative or bad memories and when older adults share some of them, they reach realizations that sometimes provide comfort and different perspectives.

She says talking about some of the rougher periods in their lives helps elders to recognize that “they’re not alone, they have overcome difficult times and gained strength and courage, and they can inspire other people who may be going through something similar.” Sanders believes sharing or discussing some of the more difficult aspects of their personal lives helps older adults discover a sort of healing process.

A Rewarding Experience

It isn’t always easy to persuade older adults to undertake the production of a life biography. Some feel the story of a life without fame and fanfare isn’t worth telling, or they may feel that there isn’t sufficient interest in that life to warrant the effort. But they’re often surprised.

“Older adults need to be convinced that they have something to say and that someone will actually want to read their autobiographies someday,” says Sanders. “But once they get started, they enjoy the reminiscing sessions.” She says when elders reminisce in a group setting, everyone remembers more than they could on their own since one individual’s memories and stories frequently prompt another elder’s similar memories.

Family members who review the life stories express “pure joy” in learning of the anecdotes and life experiences a parent or grandparent details, according to McCue. And, she says, so many of the older adults who create their life stories find that it’s “the most joyful experience they’ve had.”

Gudmundsson agrees that elders find the experience satisfying and beneficial. “Invariably, there are tears of joy and satisfaction among males and females. Many cite the event as the most emotion filled of their lives.” He says families are generally equally pleased and proud of the results.

McCue says once older adults complete the life review, they can e-mail their stories to loved ones, print them from the computer, have them bound into a handsome volume, or even archive with an archivist who creates digital records for the Smithsonian Institute. Each individual selects an option that’s as personal as the life it details.

“In the end,” says Stack, “every one of us needs to know that our lives, struggles, and experience meant something—that we made a difference—if not to the world, then at least in our own little corner of it: our family.”

— Barbara Worthington is editor of Aging Well.