In a 2012 survey conducted by the Allianz Academy of Legacies, Baby Boomers were asked to rank their priorities when it comes to passing down an inheritance.This demographic ranked passing down family history and stories as far more important than leaving financial assets to heirs. Why then have so few people made provisions for this in their will or estate plan?
Here are three main reasons:
- Some are suffer from humility and resist having to talk about themselves.
- Many people feel they have lived a boring life, and that nobody would be interested in their story.
- Most have no idea how to pass down their stories
These obstacles are not only denying children and grandchildren a chance to learn valuable life lessons from their elders but we are losing arguably the greatest body of wisdom in history as senior citizens pass away by the thousands each day. Worse, this comes at a time when our youth are learning their values from reality show celebrities and their social networks. Never before has there been such an urgent need for parents and grandparents to share their life-defining moments, milestones and special memories.
Drs. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University conducted a study that measured behaviors in children based on what they knew about their family history. They asked children 20 questions and created the Do-You-Know Scale. They found that children who scored high on the scale were associated with higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems and better chances for good outcomes if a child faces educational or emotional/behavioral difficulties.
Seniors often lose their sense of purpose and feel as if they no longer play a vital role in the family. Yet captive in their minds and memories they possess a treasure trove of priceless information only they can share. Prying that information out of seniors can be challenging for reasons mentioned above. To overcome the humility obstacle, the best way to start the conversation is by asking what the elder knows about ancestors. Because many seniors are uncomfortable talking about themselves, this is the ideal icebreaker. Not only will this technique get the senior talking but also the information provided can be first hand knowledge about family history that might otherwise have been lost.
The more stories the senior tells about other family members, the more they will begin to appreciate the value of their information which makes progressing to personal stories easier. The best way is to overcome the obstacle of believing they lived a boring life is to reminisce with vintage family photos and keepsakes. Seniors have done this numerous times with family over the decades but with today’s mobile and transient lifestyles this valuable intergenerational activity is not happening much at all.
Many families share their lives in real time on Facebook and other social networks. This is useful in learning about life in the 21st century but not so much about life as it was in the 20th century.
We all love to reminisce with family photos and keepsakes. But when’s the last time you sat side by side with an elder for an extended period of time to reminisce with theirs? The next time you visit, ask them to bring out their photo albums and start reminiscing from their earliest memories. You’ll find that seniors who would never consider themselves a storyteller tell some of the best stories ever. All they have to do is reminisce. Only this time they’ll be “reminiscing with purpose.”
Finally, passing down the family narrative requires documenting or recording the stories when they are told. Knowing which questions to ask and which photos and keepsakes are ‘legacy-worthy’ can save a lot of time and produce a more useful legacy portfolio that descendants are more likely to consume.
There is no shortage of recorders or mobile apps that can capture the story and there are great questions to be found online too. After training over 5,000 hospice volunteers how to record life reviews we put together our own Legacy Stories Handbook which provides everything needed in an all-in-one life story solution.
Before we lose the greatest body of wisdom in history, every family should start the legacy conversation with their elders. All you have to do is ask!
Tom Cormier is Co-founder of the Living Legacy Project, whose mission it is to rescue the life lessons and experiences of the 20th century before they are lost forever. He also developed LegacyStories.org, a free living history website where families and create and share their legacy stories.