Working With Your Parents to Create A Legacy

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In the process of writing my book, ‘Having “The Talk” With Your Parents About Retirement’, I’ve found that one of the ways that adult children can connect with their retiring or retired parents is to view the process of creating a legacy for them as a project that can be jointly undertaken.

The reality is that as we retire and get older there’s a need to maintain control of our lives and to understand the legacy that we’ll leave behind.

As my good friend and expert of communication with the elderly, David Solie puts it in his book, ‘How To Say it to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders‘, “Every day, whether they are millionaire moguls or retired postal clerks, former CEOs or homemakers par excellence, our elders are engaged in an elaborate process of reviewing their lives to find something of meaning that will last long after they depart.

He continues, “Once they feel that control is no longer an issue, senior adults focus on reviewing their lives to find what it meant for them to have lived.

As the adult children of retired or retiring parents we can gain much benefit for ourselves and for our parents by helping them to deeply understand and record their legacy. What were their lives all about? At the end of the day, what was most important to them?

For the adult child, one excellent way of helping is to simply ask your parents questions about their life and let them work out the levels of importance. This is what the process is all about at its origin and it will be good for you too. We tend to think of our parents as only filling that role of parenting, but actually, they’ve worn just as many hats as you have–maybe more. Encourage them to talk about their lives; what they achieved and how they did it.

There’s a wealth of resources that are available to people and families interested in compiling “legacies”.  One of the leaders in the area of helping others to create legacies is the Legacy Project.  They have a resource called ‘Across generations’ which has the following mission:

“Across Generations explores our connections with others and, in particular, encourages closer relationships between generations. How can we grow up and grow old with meaning and dignity? How can we celebrate the unique, special relationships that can be forged between young and old, and bring the generations closer in our families and communities? How can these relationships make a real difference in individual lives and in communities?”

As part of this resource, they include questionnaires that can be used when interviewing our older family members.  Here are some questions that can be great conversation starters when having a “legacy conversation” with your own parents:

–Can you describe the neighborhood that you grew up in?

–What was best gift you received growing up?

–What did you want to be growing up?

–Who was your best friend when you were growing up?

–Who has been the most significant person in your life?

–What was the happiest time in your life?

–What has been your greatest accomplishment?

–If you could change anything at anytime in your life, what would it be?

–What are you most thankful for?

–Share with us a story that you’ve never told us.

I’ve also heard from adult children who have gone through this process that another way to handle this process is also to allow their parents to ask questions of each other.  Among some of the questions that I’ve heard couples asking of each of other are the following:

–What would you do in retirement if you were not worried what anyone else might think about it?

–Is there anyone whose retirement you admire and hope that your retirement will be like theirs?  Who and what about their retirement do you wish to emulate?

–What’s your “bucket list”?

Remember that these are not only questions that will help your parents to understand more about what they want in their retirement, but it’ll allow them to know each other even better. Imagine that.  Providing an opportunity for your parents to learn new things about each other after all of these years can be a priceless experience.

There are actually many outside resources who can help in recording legacies for your family.  Lettice Stuart was an accomplished writer and reporter with the New York Times who had all of skills to record the legacies of her family: “their stories, their thoughts and feelings about death, life and family.”  Unfortunately she lost both of her parents in the course of two years and she never had the opportunity to do that.  So in 1996, she started her business, Portraits in Words, to help people record what she did not. Portraits in Words produces both printed books and videos that capture family memories.

You can also find someone at the website for the Association of Personal Historians (now doesn’t that sound like a group of people who are not only good listeners but have heard many great stories?  Not a bad way to earn a living, I think!).  Their vision “quite simply, is a world in which the story of every person, family, community, and organization is recorded and preserved. “  Not a bad vision to aspire to!

To all the adult children of retired and retiring parents, however you go about helping your parents to tell the story of their lives, remember that it’s fundamental to easing them into a successful retirement and it’ll provide joy for both you and them.  I assure you that you’ll not only learn something about them but about yourself as well.

Here’s a list of resources that will help people of any age to record their legacy:

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