Thoughtful retrospection—either oral or written—can help you focus on life's meaning and prepare for upcoming transitions, while leaving a history for future generations.

Upon reaching their middle and older years, men and women often look back on rewarding and warm moments, touching times, and challenging experiences. By making a conscious decision to contemplate the past, adults can reshape their perceptions and expectations and leave a legacy for other family members.

Robert N. Butler, MD, president of the New York—based International Longevity Center, pioneered the concept of and coined the term "life review." During the 1950s, aging experts did not perceive the value of reminiscing. But as a young researcher at the National Institutes of Health, Butler worked with healthy older adults.

"Hearing them talk about their lives, I was so struck by the importance of it—the energy, the value, the effort to come to terms with their lives, to think about reconciling with others," Butler explains. "It was just a knock-out."

Butler wrote about the process, which gained popularity and has now spread from the United States to other countries, as well. More recent research has proven that life review can improve an ill or infirm person's self-esteem, well-being and satisfaction with life.

"The autobiography did not develop until the 17th century," Butler says. "We're talking about a phenomenon of self-examination that is relatively recent. It may be that people are feeling they can learn a lot from understanding the lives of others."

When to Start

Sometimes a turning point, a career choice or an impending death sparks the reflective process. Midlife often triggers a desire to take stock of one's life. Other times, family members, hoping to learn more about their roots, may spur the autobiography.

It was a grandchild's request for information that prompted retired physician, Joe, of Orlando, Florida, to pick up a pen. "It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but that gave me a little incentive," he says.

Joe belongs to a "sage-ing" center, which offers workshops and programs and fosters a positive approach to aging, based on the book From Age-Ing To Sage-Ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older.

"Looking at accomplishments and unresolved issues, the things that make a person what they are today, comes with the decision to harvest the wisdom of a lifetime and appreciate the lessons learned," says Alison Issen, RN, LMHC, coordinator of the sage-ing center that Joe belongs to at the Winter Park Health Foundation. "It's not always easy for people. The older generation often finds it difficult to toot their own horn," she says.

The multipage document pleased Joe's descendants and gave him added incentive to share his experiences with others.

Alone or in a Group

Life review can be performed individually, with a family member, in a group or with a therapist. The Hospice Foundation of America's A Guide For Recalling And Telling Your Life Story presents questions that help people document memories.

Many organizations, taking slightly different approaches, provide opportunities for older adults to reflect and share experiences as a group.

Sage-ing includes performing a life review to stimulate inner growth and sharing of wisdom.

Guided autobiography sessions, based on the work of James E. Birren, PhD, at the UCLA Center on Aging in Los Angeles, help participants dig deep to discover insights about forces that shaped decisions during different life stages.

Share Your Life Story workshops, at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, take a less intense psychologic approach, and focus on writing about the past in different genres and reading the stories aloud to the group.

"Seemingly insignificant things meant so much to the participants, like a walk in the woods with Dad when they were five years old. The small moments stick with you," says Kate de Medeiros, who helped develop the Texas program and facilitated many of the groups. "It was cathartic rather than therapeutic."

Painful Memories

Most people can conduct a life review without problems. But, for some people, the process can bring painful memories to the surface. If you have experienced a traumatic event, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may make it difficult for you to face the past alone. The good news is that you don't have to. There are different types of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, that can help you learn new coping strategies. Even if you do not have PTSD, working with a therapist can help you to understand your history and help you grow.

What to Write About

Take an honest look at your accomplishments and unresolved issues. The more balance the better, according to Butler. Include medical events, which could hold clues about diseases that run in the family.

"I think it's going to be more and more important that families record as honestly as they can," Butler says. "It can be hard at times to be honest, but it's important to put into words [information] that can be conveyed through the generations."

De Medeiros found people wrote primarily about relationships. "World War II or the Depression might be the background for the setting, but it's never the focus of the story," she says. "The important thing is the person you served with, the relationship."

Velma, who participated in one of de Medeiros' Share Your Life Story groups, has written about her childhood, the time when her home became wired for electricity, and when she owned her first television—things her children and grandchildren find fascinating.

Some people record oral histories on audio or videotape. Most decide to write down their memories, which helps them to focus and leaves a permanent record. Some write unsent letters to old friends or family members. Using a loose-leaf binder or a computer allows you to jump around as thoughts present themselves, rather than always working in chronological order.

Experts offer the following tips:

  • Break the project into segments.
  • Let photos or keepsakes trigger memories.
  • Include as many details as possible, such as descriptions of smells, sights and sounds.
  • Add names and dates.
  • Don't worry about spelling and grammar.
  • Let memories flow naturally.

Whether you follow these steps on your own or join a life review group, let your thoughts guide you through an insightful journey as you record a lasting legacy.