An earlier blog (Remembering, Meaning, and Wholeness) described the deepening sense of meaning and cohesiveness that the life review can bestow in later life. The process not only enhances psychological well-being and helps us prepare for death, but it also enriches the legacies we have to share with the human family. As gerontologist Ron Manheimer points out, “We are mistaken . . . in thinking that people remember only for the sake of the past, when in fact old people remember for the sake of the future.” In sharing the stories of our own life and of those who have gone before, we pass on wisdom and reaffirm our interconnectedness, the continuity of life, and the endurance of the human spirit. In our hurried, virtual, unbalanced, and isolating postmodern world, these legacies of wisdom, belonging, and hope may be more crucial than they have ever been.

Elderly Navajo woman

The Legacy of Wisdom

The life review provides the opportunity to reexamine our life and discover its cohesiveness and value. Everything we experience, remember, and integrate in our own life history teaches us something and endows us with a store of wisdom we might not otherwise have developed.

Traditionally, societies have looked to their elders for understanding and insight and entrusted them with the task of guiding the young toward meaningful lives. It is no accident that in myths and folktales around the world the wise old man or woman is the one who appears at the crucial moment in the young person’s journey and points him or her toward the “Pearl of Great Price.”

Storytelling has been one of the most important ways throughout history that older people transmit wisdom to the young. Gerontologist Harry R. Moody writes, “The old person who has traveled on the journey before can show us, by telling a tale, where the dangers lie. The telling of the tale is not an amusement. It is guidance—the best guidance, perhaps the only guidance, that one generation can give another. . . . This, in its highest form, is what reminiscence and life review can mean.”

The Legacy of Belonging

In sharing the stories of our lives, we discover our kinship with one another; for as Carl Jung observed, what is most deeply personal is also most universal. At some point, we all encounter loneliness, love, loss, overcoming, shame, joy, betrayal, delight, and grief. Our life stories are about ourselves, but they are also about human experience. In sharing our stories, we learn and draw strength from one another.

In her reminiscence work with groups of elders, Grace Worth was surprised to discover how much participants gained from listening to one another’s stories. “Listening was as vital as talking. During the sharing time [elders] were amazed time and again at the universality of those particulars which before had seemed important only to their individual lives and persons.” In listening to one another’s stories, we are reminded of our common humanity and of our interconnectedness. Stories dissolve isolation and reweave our sense of belonging.

Elderly woman smiling

The Legacy of Hope

In sharing our memories with the young and telling stories of what we have experienced and witnessed, we illuminate the cord of continuity that connects generations. For youth to find their way forward, they need to know from whom and whence they come. In these difficult times, stories that communicate the tenacious continuity of life and of human beings’ capacity for endurance are especially important to share.

As older people, we are the guardians of the remembered past. We know a world to which the young have no access, unless we share it. Through storytelling we bring to life the people and events of the past and illuminate the bridge between generations. Our stories let the young know that generations stand behind them. They are not starting from scratch, not adrift in time. They come from people who have struggled and survived; our survival is a testament to human endurance and to the continuity of life.

Stories of how we and our ancestors kept going are a legacy that can lend the young strength and hope as they wrestle in their own lives. And when they are the old ones, they in turn, will tell stories to their own (and others’) grandchildren and great-grandchildren, illuminating for them the continuous chain that links generations and connects the past, the present, and the future

Sources and Recommended Resources

Manheimer, Ron. “Remember to Remember,” in Marc Kaminsky’s All That Our Eyes Have Seen. p. 98.

Moody, Harry. “Reminiscence and the Recovery of the Public World” in Marc Kaminsky’s The Uses of Reminiscence, pp. 158, 162.

Worth, Grace. “At The Center.” In Marc Kaminsky’s The Uses of Reminiscence, p. 59.

I highly recommend the following films that beautifully illustrate the beneficial effects of reviewing our life and sharing our stories: Evening, The Straight Story, Fried Green Tomatoes, The First Grader, The Woman in Gold, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Enchanted April.

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