Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Your Aging Parent's Legacy, Pt. 1: Defining and Honoring It

Two words: Inheritance and legacy.  Are they the same?  And how do they impact you and your aging parent, and perhaps your children as well?

According to Psychologist James Dobson among others,  "inheritance" refers to tangible assets, the "stuff" we can see and touch: money, stocks and bonds, real estate, etc. "Legacy", on the other hand,  often has financial implications, but it is broader:  it speaks to the values a person has and gives to others, especially to subsequent generations.  A legacy could include such values as generosity, kindness, self-discipline, humor.

My father, for example, was a pastor in a small denomination in the Midwest.  By the time he died, he was on Medicaid.  A small life insurance policy, split three ways between my siblings and me, gave me enough money to buy a laptop.  Not a huge inheritance.

His legacy, though was larger.   I remember his kindness to parishioners given in big and small ways.  Every summer for 15 years he drove a carload of giggly kids some 650 miles to church camp along winding mountain switchback-laden roads.  I also remember him listening periodically on the phone as an alcoholic sputtered out his story at 2 am.  And there were the countless funerals in which Daddy gave himself unconditionally to the grieving families.  I value his example:  his legacy. 

How do we speak about legacy with our parents and with others?

First:  We honor the legacy we see in our parent's lives, now, and over the course of their lives.  If your parent has always been a giver, talk about that generosity with your family.  Stories are a wonderful way to do that.  In our family, we receive jams and jellies from my mother-in-law and little gifts of special cookies, crackers, and more.  Sometimes the stories illustrating
generosity are humorous, like the time our sons wanted Grandma to teach them how to make a pie crust.  A master baker, she tried, but both boys had all thumbs, and the session ended in laughter.

Second:  We think hard about our own legacy, and work to make it happen.  I'm not gifted in many ways,  but I can express my thoughts reasonably well in writing.  Hopefully my legacy will include memories of my notes, emails and other pieces of writing.  I also enjoy teaching my grandchildren how to bake and sew.  Small things, but they become part of a legacy.

Third:  We can write legacy letters to our loved ones , including our aging parents.  These letters highlight important aspects of a person's life and are illustrated with stories.  The next post will give more detail on writing these letters.  Health Advocate Melanie Vetter, of Wellfleet Circle, contributed much of the content on legacy letter writing.

Do you have any experience with celebrating a loved one's legacy? 

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