The word legacy is frequently used to describe the property that people leave their heirs when they die. But every human being also leaves behind a nonmaterial legacy -- one that's harder to define but often far more important. This legacy comprises a lifetime of relationships, accomplishments, truths, and values, and it lives on in those whose lives they've touched.
Recent research has established that, as people age, they continue to face important developmental milestones. Aging, it turns out, provides opportunities for learning and emotional growth that can be deep and sustaining. Creating a meaningful legacy is a key part of this developmental process.
In his book How to Say It to Seniors, geriatric expert David Solie defines a personal legacy as "the unique footprint we want to leave for our time on earth." Physician and gerontologist Gene Cohen describes the same phenomenon in a different way. Older people, he says in his book The Mature Mind, are driven by an urgent desire "to find larger meaning in the story of their lives through a process of review, summarizing, and giving back."
There's much you can do to support friends and relatives as they sort through the past and assess the contributions they've made and the memories they'll leave behind. This process can be deeply healing and gratifying.
Recognizing someone's legacy will help you understand her better and appreciate her more -- and you may learn something about yourself in the process. For the person you're caring for, it provides the opportunity to celebrate a life well lived.
As David Solie says, "Aging in this culture is seen as a disease and a failure. Older people internalize that message and feel like failures. Our message to them should be that they are not failures. They have a lot to be proud of, and they are loved and appreciated. They can die as they have lived -- with integrity and meaning. That is what the legacy-building process is all about."