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Looking Back Doesn't Mean I'm Old, But I Thought It Might

Reflecting on our lives can help determine coping strategies, a better understanding of others and an improved sense of well-being

By Christina Leimer

Aging is no big deal, I thought. I grew up around grandparents and great-grandparents and as a teen and young adult I worked in nursing homes. My friends were often at least a decade older than me. Always focused on the future, with each new decade I felt stronger, more confident and content.

A close up shot of an old photo album and two people paging through the photos. Next Avenue, looking back, reminiscing about the past
Credit: Getty

So I was surprised when, new to my sixth decade, I found myself looking back at the past and thinking, does this mean I'm old? I'm not ready for that! Searching the web and academic literature, I realized I'd stepped right into a stereotype about older people — that they live in the past.

According to Dr. Gerben J. Westerhof, narrative psychology researcher at the University of Twente in The Netherlands, most people reminisce from time to time, regardless of their age.

"About half of older adults engage spontaneously in more systematic review of their lives. You might say they live of their past rather than in their past."

"Few people really live in their past," he said. "About half of older adults engage spontaneously in a more systematic review of their lives. You might say they live of their past rather than in their past."

While for some people, looking back can evoke bitterness or be a way of escaping current problems, more often we benefit from looking back. "It's grounding," said Dr. Tom Meuser, clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Excellence in Aging & Health at the University of New England.

Meuser's 85-year-old former executive father returned to his hometown after he retired. He meets weekly at a diner with a small group of high school friends to reminisce.

Reminiscing Can Help Tap Into Resilience

"With advancing age, when your footprint in the world is shrinking and your social network is getting smaller, reminiscing helps people tap into their own inner resilience, to recognize 'I've done interesting and meaningful things and I still have them inside me'," said Meuser.

Looking back on our life can help us remember past coping strategies, understand others better and improve our sense of well-being. Because looking back is so natural and helpful for most people, it's also used in formal ways by professionals and caretakers to help people with dementia and depressive symptoms.

"Reminiscence is a great tool," said Alison Moritz, program director at San Francisco Institute on Aging's (IOA) Enrichment Center where adults with dementia come for day activities.

For instance, if you know someone liked baseball you might give them a baseball to hold, let them put on a glove, play related music or the sounds of being in a stadium.

"Engaging all their senses, it's a pressure-free way for them to tap into their own story. They have a joyful, purposeful day, sleep better at night, and it can help them live at home longer," she said.

How Reminiscence Can Help People with Dementia

IOA's volunteers are trained to work with dementia, but to help a family member using reminiscence Moritz offers this advice.

1. Ask open ended questions, so they're filling in the narrative and making the story themselves.

2. Don't correct facts. People tend to shut down if you do. For example, with aphasia — where people have difficulty coming up with the word — instead of telling them the right word, give them 2-3 options and let them choose. This builds a sense of autonomy.

3. Remember, you have more control over your emotions and behavior than they do.

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Although many older adults review their life, in a therapeutic setting life review is typically used to alleviate depression. For that purpose, looking back is a more structured process. It may cover all phases of life or focus on a particular phase and both positive and negative memories.

Most commonly, this technique is combined with cognitive behavioral, creative or other therapies. "It can help people make sense of critical life change like retirement, illness or widowhood," said Meuser. 

Sometimes life review or story work is done in groups too, where people look at their lives in the context of themes. The Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies uses "guided autobiography" (a process its founder pioneered) with groups.

"The value of legacy conversations across generations is its potential to bring greater understanding and increase care and affection in families."

During these events, "priming questions" are asked to help evoke memories. Everyone's story is different, but participants use theirs to write two pages on a common theme. Then they read it to the group.

"Our stories define us as individuals and as collective witnesses to our life and times," said Meuser.

As an example, he offers an article he wrote with 86-year-old Fay Badasch. In it, she recounts her first job as a switchboard operator, her company receiving the call that FDR had died, her GI boyfriend returning home and the unexpected ways the Holocaust influenced her.

What may be ordinary experiences, placed in broader context makes clear how the times we live in affect us and sometimes how we affect the times or other people. More than recalling events, this storytelling is rich and multi-layered.

Looking at Life Experience Through a 'Legacy Lens'

It helps us discover "what an experience means, especially when looking back after years of maturation and experience," said Meuser. "Even terrible events can take on new and important meanings when explored in older age. How did and does this memory define you now?"

In his Ted Talk, Meuser encourages looking at our life experience through a "legacy lens."

"All of us leave a legacy, aspects of ourselves that outlive us," he said. "In Western culture we don't often think about legacy as behaviors and values. We think of it as financial. We're creating legacy right now in everything we do."

Meuser's research found that parents and their adult children often have different views of what the parent's legacy is. "They think they know each other, but not as well as they think. The value of legacy conversations across generations is its potential to bring greater understanding and increase care and affection in families."

Since family difficulties aren't unusual and reflecting on legacy is often an end-of-life experience, how might you bring it up if you're a parent or adult child who wants to have a cross-generational legacy conversation?

Meuser suggests starting with yourself. Think about how you'll respond. Maybe come up with a brief story about the person's impact. Then test it out with them. Stay open and curious, checking, "do I have it right?" But remember, some people may not be open to it.

"As we review our lives from the vantage point of age, we have a tendency to emphasize the positive, life-giving experience of our own story," Meuser said. "It doesn't have to be all rosy, but there's a tendency to find strength in the past, to focus on the good stuff."

Photograph of Christina Leimer
Christina Leimer is an independent writer and researcher. She can be reached through her website, ChristinaLeimer.com. Read More
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