Establishing a Legacy and Aging

A legacy is one’s tangible and intangible assets that are transferred to another and may be treasured as a symbol of the individual who is bequeathing it. The elderly should be encouraged to identify that which they would like to leave and who they wish their recipients to be. This process has great significance and tends to prepare one to “leave” with a sense of meaning.

Legacies can provide a feeling of continuation and tangible ties to their survivors. Legacies may range from memories to material bequests that will live on in the minds of others. The researcher Erikson’s seventh stage of man identifies the generative function as the main concern of the adult years and the last stage, the eighth, as that of reviewing with integrity or despair what one has accomplished.

Following are suggested legacies: oral histories, autobiographies, shared memories, works of art and music, publications, human organ donations, endowments, objects of significance, written histories, and philanthropic causes.

Legacies are identified and shared best as one approaches the end of life. According to Erikson, “Each person is a link in the chain of generations and as such, may identify with generational accomplishments.” An old person may feel himself as a significant part of a generation that survived the Great Depression of 1929. A middle aged person may identify with the generation that walked on the moon. Those years of youthful idealism are impressed in one’s memory by the political or ideological climate of the time.

There are many ways that one’s legacy is expressed through the development of others. Here are several examples that illustrate how one’s legacy can be expressed.

First Illustration – John, an aged man cried as he talked of his grandson’s talent as a violinist. They both shared their love for the violin and the grandfather believed he had personally contributed to his grandson’s development as a budding musician.

Second Illustration – A retired professor spoke of visiting his son in a distant state and hearing him expound ideas that had been partially developed by the professor and his father before him.

Third Illustration – Aunt Martha worried about preserving the environment for future generations, so she took her niece on a nature walk to stimulate her interest in birds, plants and small creatures. She also donated land for a future natural park. People who amass large fortunes and allocate to certain funds for endowment of artists, scientific projects and intellectual exploration are counting on others to complete their legacy. Following are several suggestions for assisting an elder to identify and develop their legacy:

  • find out their lifelong interests and discuss them with appropriate individuals;
  • establish a means of recording these interests for posterity;
  • record legacies with copies distributed and review for future referral.

It is gratifying to an elderly person if a legacy can be converted into some calculable form, thus ensuring that it will not readily be dismissed or forgotten. I have, at this point, offered several mechanisms that can be employed for establishing a credible legacy. One final mechanism is a series of questions to help the elderly prepare a legacy, but only if he or she is ready to do so.

  1. Have you ever thought of writing an autobiography?
  2. If you could leave something to the younger generation what would it be?
  3. Have you given thought to the impact your generation has had on the world?
  4. What has been most meaningful in your life?

These suggestions should readily stimulate ideas for a spontaneous discussion which is far more valid in an interpersonal way than merely parceling out cherished items with no thought as to who receives them.

One’s personal items are highly charged with memories and meaning, and transferring them to friends and kin can be an emotional experience. Most important, they should never be dispersed without the owner’s knowledge. It is vital that people approaching the end of life be given full opportunity to appropriately distribute their important belongings to those whom they feel will most cherish them and think about their significance.

On a personal note:

  • The golden years, a phrase frequently spoken by an older population can be a positive experience for everyone who pursues it. (Build a legacy while it is in your purview to do so!)
  • The golden years offer a potentially qualitative life that was once consumed with day to day problems and issues. You overcame many of these problems. (Therefore, consider creating a legacy!)
  • The golden years can sometimes be elusive to those remaining years. (A good time for establishing that legacy!)

A brief anecdote: Mary was 93 years old when she passed. Still she was known to have an uncommon yet practical philosophy about the legacy she was leaving behind. These were Mary’s words. “At 93 I am both frail and tough, and toughness seems to dominate. This is my legacy.” This truly was Mary’s legacy. My advice to all of us is, consider adopting Mary’s philosophy. It holds great possibilities.

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