The Task of Being Remembered

When understood as a psychological developmental task, it’s not surprising that legacy insists on being addressed, either consciously or unconsciously. Yet because seniors are old doesn’t mean they understand this process. When faced with it, most people do not have a clue about how to accomplish it and need to be facilitated. A lucky few are focused and have it all figured out. The rest of us wind up fuzzy since we don’t know where to begin.

In my work with seniors, I’ve noted that legacy falls into three main categories: default, political and organic. A default legacy is a legacy of natural consequences, one that the person has no part in shaping. For whatever reason, the person never communicates the way in which he or she wants to be remembered. Therefore, that person’s legacy gets shaped by others, possibly the very people with whom he or she was constantly struggling. Another way in which a legacy emerges by default is when survivors are cleaning out the deceased’s personal effects and find letters, photographs, diaries, or notes that reveal secrets that the survivors never knew. Sometimes it is formed when the will is read, or a close friend of the deceased shares a story at the memorial service that surprises the family. Sometimes these revelations become part of the deceased’s ethos or mystery, and leave the person’s legacy in a limited and generally undeveloped form, not useful to the survivors. Most people want to avoid being remembered by default. It’s a passive process and may be a highly inaccurate portrait of their lives.

The political legacy can be described as “doing the right thing,” more mechanical than heartfelt, more process driven than authentic. Political legacies are formed by people who have completed a limited form of life review and have come up with the obvious ways in which they want to be remembered. A doctor leaves enough money for his grandchildren to attend medical school, or donates money to the medical school itself for scholarships for future doctors. A mother leaves her son the family automobile and her daughter the household effects. These are examples of political legacies, what one might expect a person to do. These gifts may be heartfelt, or may not be.

If a person is one of those whose legacy is clear—that is, the person has led a focused life and knows exactly how he or she wants to be remembered—then the political legacy may be the heartfelt one as well. The person may not have needed to do a thorough life review, because the life lived was open, unambiguous, and full of meaningful deeds. But in many cases, the political legacy may reflect only part of the person’s life story.

Organic legacy is all heart, which can be many different things: acts of courage, decisions to repair a torn relationship, expressions of loyalty and faith. The process that gets us to organic legacy produces an uneasiness about answers to questions that touch on basic issues in our lives. Have I been a good parent, son, or daughter? A fair boss? A faithful friend? This developmental task triggers life review and then moves it to a much higher purpose: the need to be remembered for things we valued most.

How do we know if the life-review process that leads to legacy is under way? Is it possible to determine how far in the process our loved one, client, or colleague is? Just how much facilitation does any one person need? We need to begin at the beginning, assuming nothing. The search for organic legacy goes on with or without us. It is a continual assessment performed by anyone who lives to be a certain age. As de facto legacy coaches, we want to be part of this process.

Legacy Rules

Let’s review the rules about how an organic legacy is created before we learn some simple strategies to facilitate one.

Legacy is not optional. When understood as a developmental need, legacy insists on being addressed, either consciously or unconsciously. It’s the end product of life review, a developmental mandate of those privileged to survive into old age. Once we enter this stage, we constantly reconsider our lives to determine how we want to be remembered.

Returning to the past is not pathology. Life review and the creation of a legacy are a natural evolution of where we need to be developmentally at the end of our lives.

Legacy surfaces when control issues abate. If control issues are not resolved, they dominate our developmental mandate and we never get to focus on legacy.

In searching for an organic legacy, events that may have been misinterpreted, misunderstood, or unrepaired in the past are reexamined. This process reinterprets events and, if necessary, invites us to make amends. This process is difficult because of many factors:

– the number of experiences we have stored up over a lifetime;

– the tremendous mental focus needed to do it right;

– the physical energy required to remain highly involved at a time when physical strength is ebbing each day;

– unfacilitated control issues.

Creation of an organic legacy offers the potential for healing. Forming an organic legacy means that we have dedicated considerable time, energy, and insight into what has happened in our lives and tried to determine what everything means. Packaging the essence of that journey provides future generations with a perspective that fosters understanding, forgiveness, acceptance and resolution of values that may or may not have been appreciated during our lifetimes.

Legacy is not simply a summary of what we’ve experienced. Part of our legacy is what we lived and part of it is what we may not have lived, but what we admired. Both parts of legacy contain values for which we would like to be remembered. Legacy coaches facilitate both of these needs.

Legacy gives us a chance to play an active role in the future. Through organic legacy, we are able to create a vehicle that has the potential to influence people beyond those we encountered during our lifetime. The goal is to be part of a conversation one hundred years from now, even though we are not physically present, because we set in motion a series of events or memories that live on after us.

Uncovering the Secret Stuff

Legacy coaches want to know the “secret stuff,” emotional material that contains the values to be threaded through the person’s legacy quilt. Sometimes our efforts will meet with a resounding thud at best, hostility or dogma at worst. Expect setbacks, but don’t give up.

In order to get to the “secret stuff”—the value-laden material—we sometimes need to start in the safety of the conversational suburbs and work in toward the core of the person’s experience. Sometimes this strategy requires nothing more than our ability to remain silent and aware of the “hiccup” in their conversation—a pause, a repetition—that signals an important has just been, or is about to be, revealed, and knowing how to respond appropriately. But sometimes more proactive facilitation is needed. That’s when it’s important to employ one or more of four different communication strategies that will not only spark life review and recontextualization, but enhance our ability to interpret what we hear.

Below are five communication strategies for prompting life review:

Ask open-ended core questions. Open-ended questions spark the search for organic legacy. The questions are open-ended, because the answers don’t seek facts. They rely on interpretation, memory, and values. Since the same questions can elicit different responses on different days, there are not right or wrong answers. In fact, as the elderly recontextualize patches of memory that are forming their legacy quilt, answers should differ. An attentive legacy coach helps them stitch together these fragments into a coherent and meaningful whole.

Below is a portfolio of core open-ended questions that can be used in the discovery of legacy. Listen for the values expressed in almost every sentence of the answers.

Who was the most significant person in your life when you were growing up?

What was the biggest obstacle your family had to overcome?

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment? Your greatest disappointment?

If you could change anything at any time in your life, what would it be?

Harvest responses to open-ended questions. Listen for repeated details, people or entire stories. Ask follow-up questions.

How did his actions affect other events in your life?

How were you able to cope with such a loss?

What would you do about it if you could?

Listen for values. When someone recounts an experience, that person is relaying actions by characters in a story. And those characters are doing certain things that are either noble or not.

“Her husband was sick for twenty years. And for twenty years she did the grocery shopping, took care of him, raised their kids.” What are the values in that statement? Profound loyalty. Dedication. Sense of duty. Good work ethic. Statements like this one offer clues to a person’s legacy. You might ask:

How has your life reflected some of those values?

In what way have those values become part of your life?

How would you like your legacy to reflect some of these things?

Note the legacy vehicles. Legacy coaches need to listen for what I call “legacy vehicles,” which also provide clues to the values a person needs to pass on to future generations. Legacy vehicles can be any of the following:

– acts of courage

– decisions to forgive or repair a relationship

– reflection on such questions as, “Have I been a good parent, friend, boss?” “Have I done enough for others?” “Have I contributed to my community?”

– impact of declining health

– family stories

We may be quite familiar with the acts of courage to which our elders now refer. We may have begged our elder to reconcile with a family member for years and doubt their sincerity now. We may have heard that family story a dozen times. WE sometimes get frustrated with them, because they seem so focused on their health.

Actually, such conversations are a huge gift to us, because they open up legacy doors! We need to listen to these statements with new appreciation, because at the end of life, they become vehicles for memories that need a different response. For example, when our elders talk about health, they are giving us entrée to their core values. Their back hurts? As them to describe the pain, then listen to what other subjects may arise. They’re repeating a family story we’ve heard dozens of times? WE need to listen for the telling detail we’ve never heard before. Auth Em wants to make contact with her estranged son? What is it about establishing contact the seems so important now?

These legacy vehicles are opportunities for us to highlight values a person needs to explore.

Start with “Tell me about…” One of the most powerful phrases in our communication arsenal is this invitation to relate a story. “Tell me about…” is particularly useful for legacy coaches facilitating the life-review process. The medical equivalent of this phrase is “What’s going on?” (Anything can be going on, not necessarily medical.) The legal equivalent is: “What’s the most important thing for me to know about you?”

“Tell me about…” always rings a legacy bell. It’s a big verbal driver that evokes the oral tradition. The “tell me about…” command signals to seniors that we’re listening, interested in what they have to say, and want to hear more.

Don’t forget to start with general themes to reach the core of the person’s experience, an excellent technique for establishing rapport and building trust when we sense recontextualization is occurring. If the person is having trouble finding significance in the legacy vehicle, “tell me about…” is a way to approach the subject from a different directions and perhaps stimulate a different response.

Refining Our Role as Legacy Coach

Below is a checklist for legacy coaches to help with the process of recontextualizing our seniors’ experiences. Informed by the strength of our commitment to and relationship with the older person, we can begin with those organic connectors in that person’s nonlinear world and start to gather scenes that are important. This process, once mastered, is one we’ll continue to use throughout our lives.

Focus on values. The details of a person’s life are interesting, but legacy coaches want values to surface. Facts give us information, but if we can detect values, we can form a connection that could become part of the person’s legacy.

Recognize that formulating legacy is an intense, active process. Both for us and senior adults, figuring out legacy is challenging. We need to stay alert and help our seniors focus.

Note a person’s developmental uneasiness. This concept alludes to the unconscious nature of the developmental tasks and the prospect of sorting a lifetime of experiences, which can feel daunting or overwhelming. If the elderly person is having difficulty with these tasks, we need to come to his or her aid.

Conduct these conversations in a variety of settings. If the elder person’s health permits, varying the venue is extremely important to stimulate different memories to surface. Encourage as much interaction as possible.

Prevent the degradation of a person’s experiences into a default legacy. Legacy coaches must intervene on behalf of seniors to hold control issues at bay. Battles for control can smother the ability and desire to get to legacy. We don’t manage the legacy; we manage the process by which the legacy is discovered.

Feel the emotional gravity of our seniors’ attempts to review their lives. If we can imagine how seriously seniors take this look back, then we start to understand how important it is that life review in old age moves forward.

Tune into an elderly person’s radar. Our elders can read us very well as having empathy and insight into aging, or not. They begin with the knowledge that we’re not old people, so how do we know anything about their concerns? When we can convince them, through our legacy-coach approach, that we understand this process, we can feel their relief. Most seniors, once we assure them they have all the control they need and we’re listening with our hearts, can relax and let their emotions flow.

Raise any subject that seems relevant. When talking with senior adults we know well, there are hardly any questions that would seem off limits or too personal to this age group. Declining health opens up the heart in ways we can’t imagine. Most of the skills needed to facilitate life review involve the ability not to questions and prod, but simply to listen and ask the right follow-up questions.

In many of my conversations with seniors, much has been revealed that was unexpected but ultimately important to the older person’s life review. Yet, most of the time I facilitated the discussion by remaining silent and simply letting that person talk. There are times I could have jumped into the discussion, but chose not to for a variety of reasons, including the following:

– The conversation took a nonlinear turn, signaling something important was about to be revealed.

– Details emerged that presented a picture more vivid than a painting or a movie, indicating that this topic was key to organic legacy and worthy of intense focus.

– A subject was not mentioned that logically should have been, signaling that the person was still processing its meaning.

– A subject was introduced, or dismissed with more emotion than it deserved, hinting that its importance but not its significance was understood.

– A matter was repeatedly mentioned, pointing to values the person wanted us to remember and help incorporate into the legacy quilt.

Much of the time, our elders need our attentive and sympathetic ear, not great conversational skills. Listening for the values involves just that: lots of sympathetic listening.

Rethinking Our Approach

A lesson I learned early in my professional life was that, as in medicine, we cure or solve the problem when we can, but we must comfort the person always. Yes, our livelihoods depend on seeing as many patients or clients as possible, implementing plans, getting results. But we won’t succeed at any of these missions with elderly clients unless we know how to listen to them in way that respond to and enhances their end-of-life tasks. Employing simple but effective communications strategies is an opportunity for professionals to achieve spectacular results—both professionally and personally. This rewriting of the cultural definition of aging—listening for seniors’ developmental dialect and responding appropriately—helps diminish the isolation they feel. Legacy coaching can be used without restructuring a practice. All it requires is commitment toward certain goals to understand and communicate more effectively with older adults. With our goals and a commitment in mind, we can more effectively serve the needs of older adults.


Legacy coach: A person with a set of specific communication skills that facilitate senior adults in their search for the ways they wish to be remembered, their primary end-of-life task.

Legacy quilt: Moments of emotional material, recollected during the life-review process and examined for content, quality, and values, that together make up the ways in which a senior adult wants to be remembered.

Life review: The elaborate process in which elders engage to find something of value that they wish to pass along to younger generations, and by which they wish to be remembered. It is the dominant psychological event of old age, whether expressed (sometimes through unique communication habits) or unexpressed.

Recontextualization: The process in life review by which senior adults look backward to prepare for their future, remembering long-ago events, people, places, and relationships, and assigning new meaning or importance of these events to their lives (from Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s From Age-ing to Sage-ing, Warner Books, 1997).