Reflecting on a Life

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When the doctors have done all they can and the life of a loved one is ebbing away, there’s more that can be done than just giving medications to ease the pain. Helping them remember their life can bring a dying loved one thoughts of happier times. It can remind them of who they are and all of their accomplishments. It can leave you with a deeper understanding of the legacy they leave behind and the generations to come.

It’s sometimes called Legacy Therapy or Life Review and it’s now being used to ease the pain of the dying by hospice professionals across the nation. These remembrance facilitators are good listeners and can help the patient open up to remembering important times, every day joys and childhood fond memories. In turn, the facilitator takes notes and creates a document to be given to the family as a legacy letter. The benefits to the dying are remarkable and the family is left knowing more about their loved one than ever before.

Leaving a Legacy

This recent article in the Sacramento Bee includes an interview with a palliative care psychiatrist who has studied end-of-life care, Dr. Nathan Fairman of UC Davis. He said that helping the patient focus on the parts of their life story that involve the deep meaning of their lives and their relationships with others can allow them to leave the legacy they want. Using a facilitator frees the patient from holding back as they might do with a family member.

Although researchers are just now finding the value in reminiscence for dying patients, storytelling has been a part of life since the beginning of time. Family histories were passed down by elders who talked to their younger family members so important times and people would not be forgotten.

I’ve learned firsthand what recalling the early years of life can do for a senior, even those with dementia. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many seniors to write a brief history of their lives and I always come away richer for the experience.

Remarkable Stories

One senior I interviewed was 102 and living in assisted living because of her dementia. She couldn’t remember eating her desert even though she was scraping the small bowl that had held her ice cream. I doubted I could get a good story out of her life until I asked her, “Where were you born?” I could see her whole demeanor change and her face lit up. Her memory of her early life was so strong with vibrant details of living in San Francisco until the death of her father. She told me about her stepmother throwing her out and having to work her way through high school and nursing school. It was one of the most remarkable stories I have ever heard. I believe it was much better than any medicine this wonderful lady could ever take.

You don’t have to wait until a loved one is dying to start talking to them about the history of their lives. Find out what times and places mean the most to them. Find out about the struggles they’ve had and their relationships with their parents and other family members. Find out what accomplishments mean the most to them. Find out who they really are — the whole person, not just the old person. You both will be richer for the experience. You too can write down their thoughts for your very own “inheritance” of a wonderful legacy.

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