Moving Forward, Looking Back. Creating a Legacy for Your Parent

4 ways to keep the memories alive.

senior with book talking to nurse

"Growing up, I knew of the world they had left behind, but the fragments of history that I discovered over the years leave great gaps and unanswered questions. Who was I named after? And what sort of lives did my mother and father live as children in that vanished world, and why did they decide to marry one another? Yet, despite the absence of cohesive narratives, I have always felt a connection to those who came before me, whom I know have at the deepest level fashioned who I am."

This is the beginning of my mother's memoir, a poignant, heartfelt, joyous and at times achingly painful account of her life. It is the haunting unanswered questions of a little girl, now an eighty-two year old woman, who lost her own mother at the age of six, and who through writing a memoir can better understand her own history by piecing together dim recollections of the past. It is the gift of a legacy that my mother will pass on to me, my siblings, our children, and the generations that will follow.

For more than twenty years, I've counseled families in senior care planning. A common regret I hear from adult children who have lost their parents is the wish that they had asked and understood more about their own family history. This is particularly true for family caregivers, whose focus on the present is necessitated by the practical concerns of getting through the day; managing medication, getting to medical appointments, stocking the fridge with food, and coordinating care. Taking time to learn more about the past seems like a luxury for many caregivers.

But taking that time may in fact be beneficial to those we love and care for and provide an important opportunity to redefine and enhance our familial connections. An essential challenge for our loved ones as they approach old age is to relinquish the need to exert control and to harvest the meaning of their lives through imparting legacy.

Part of facilitating this important life review is to bear witness to memories, which form the very foundation of identity and can serve as an intangible link in a powerful chain that connects us to generations that came before us. I am reminded of the psychological importance of memory when I read my mother's description of the loss of her mother. "The worst loss for me was of memory. Lost was the sound of my mother's voice, her words--the feel of her hugs, and her smile. Any photos of her and her beloved daughter have mysteriously vanished".

Sally Ultraman*, a former caregiver, spoke about the recent loss of her own mother, who died after a long battle with cancer. "I still speak to her every day in my mind. I share the joys and frustrations of being a mother, the silly stories of my children's antics, and I think of how she would have delighted in their growth and given me advice." Weeks before Sally's mother died, she had hospice care in her home, which enabled Sally to relinquish many of the grinding tasks of caregiving and just be present. "I asked so many questions about her life, her family, her struggles, and her defining moments. During those precious weeks before my mother passed away, I heard stories that I had heard before but never really listened to. I was able to connect to my mother freely, when in the past I couldn't, because I was a rebellious teenager, a self-preoccupied young adult, and most recently, a multi-tasking overwhelmed working mother and caregiver. I realized that her strength was my strength and the tenacity of her perseverance and love defined not just her own life story, but mine as well."

As our parents struggle to accept and come to terms with their losses, to recapture fragments of memory and to hold on to what remains, they are engaged in an effort to shape and understand their legacy - to reflect on the meaning of their lives and the memories that will live on with future generations after they die.

Helping a parent reflect on their life story can be a tremendously healing process, as Sally describes, and as I have personally experienced. As we all must eventually confront our own mortality, may we do so with the comfort that perhaps our children will take the time to learn our stories, pass on our history, and continue our legacy through honoring and understanding the past.

Here are four tips to help the senior in your life create their own legacy:

  1. Film Their Stories
    Use a digital recorder, like a FlipCam (about $100) to record a parent's advice, memories, playful moments or laughter. Upload them and share with the whole family. Get your social-savvy generation to comment and ask more questions online. Share all the feedback with your parent so he feels the positivity and love.

  2. Tell a Love Story
    Sort through Mom's handwritten keepsakes and piece together the love notes, birthday cards and photos that tell her story "The Notebook"-style. Paste them into a large coffee-table-type scrapbook to make your whole family swoon.

  3. Frame Their Phrases
    Sort through the saved notes, emails, birthday cards and letters your parents have sent you, your siblings and each grandchild. Make a photocopy of each and physically cut and paste favorite phrases into a book or on a collage. Compile with some of your favorite images and display.

  4. Transcribe Their Memories
    Sit down with a computer and ask your parents all the questions you can think of. Start with Mom's childhood or how Dad first asked her out. Ask Dad about his first car or the lessons he learned from his own father. Type with no agenda -- just let it all unfold. Consider using a Dictaphone for better backup. Make sure to ask your family for the questions they'd love to know. Don't worry about publishing the content, just make sure you have it saved.

* Note: Name has been changed.

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