Reviewing Our Lives

Accept with serenity the approach of each new stage of life. Welcome the approach of old age, both for oneself and for others, as an opportunity for wisdom, for detachment from turmoil, and for greater attachment to the Light.

—from New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice advices, #111

I met my father’s older sister Lotte when she was 90. The woman I had known only from my parents’ descriptions was imperious, vain, self-absorbed, complaining, exploitative, and utterly oblivious of the feelings of others. They had held her up to us as the epitome of everything we should not become. Although they had not seen her since the 1930s, they heard from relatives that she was as insufferable as ever. But then, in 1978, my father received a letter thanking him—somewhat belatedly, she said—for rescuing her from Vienna when the Nazis came. A few months later, she appeared at my parents’ home in Vermont, en route from her home in New Zealand, by way of Argentina, where she had sought out a former husband to apologize to him for the way she had treated him 50 years earlier, her next destination a kibbutz in Israel where she would visit a nephew with whom she had been corresponding. Then she would return to New Zealand, where she said she taught dance to bedridden residents of a nursing home.

The woman I met was less than five feet tall, yet she had "presence." She dressed flamboyantly in shawls and colorful long skirts, and wore purple sunglasses indoors and out, but it seemed to be a matter of careful self-presentation rather than of vanity. Her smile was radiant. She asked about our lives, and cocked her head to listen to our answers. I asked about her work as a dance teacher in a nursing home, wondering how people who cannot get out of bed can dance. She responded, in her thick Viennese accent, "Maybe they are old, and maybe they can only move one finger, but, Darling, that one finger can dance!"

As I came to know her better, I asked what had happened to bring about such huge changes in the way she lived and related to others—changes that she admitted had occurred, quite suddenly, since her 89th birthday. Her answer? "I looked at my life, and then I grew up."

Life-review, for my Tante Lotte, had occurred spontaneously and naturally. It had permitted her to resolve longstanding conflicts, to take care of unfinished business, to work through regrets and negative emotions, to complete her life as the person she wanted to be.

The history of life review as a definable process goes back to 1961, when a psychiatrist named Robert Butler coined the term. He advocated life review as a therapeutic intervention for people facing the end of life, the frail elderly, the terminally ill. He acknowledged that life review is a universal process that we all engage in frequently throughout the life cycle, but he thought it was especially useful for people who have little time left, using reminiscence to find meaningfulness in their lives and to face death with equanimity. He trained social workers, nurses, and other health professionals in this one-on-one approach, cautioning them against avoiding painful material or offering gratuitous reassurances, advocating a clinical approach based on therapeutic practices.

Much has changed since Robert Butler reframed reminiscence from "living in the past," to a life task of later years, an opportunity to integrate one’s experiences in the face of death. For Butler, the impulse to reminisce was motivated by elders’ fear of death, and frequently was fueled by their perceived propensity for self-absorbed rumination. The focus was on the older person’s unresolved issues and current needs. The format for resolution was verbal, a therapeutic encounter between the older person and a mental health professional. Today, life review occurs also among the "young old," people still engaged in activities and community work. No longer limited by its therapeutic label, it occurs in many forms beyond talking one-on-one. Perceived beneficiaries of the process now include those privileged to witness the elders’ life reviews, individuals, audiences, and the community itself.

Academicians and practitioners explore the fictional aspects of reminiscence, the story itself in the wider context of cultural stereotypes and assumptions, and the functions of narrative in the creation of self. Sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists study the lives and associations of older people, especially of older women, who make up the majority of the aging population. In the past five or ten years, an academic discipline of "narrative gerontology" has emerged, focusing on the stories that define older people within a culture that marginalizes and stereotypes them, and on alternative stories, or counter-narratives, that can empower and affirm their existence.

Recent emphasis has been on reminiscence and life review as a process of creating a myth or parable of one’s life, rethinking one’s past and thereby creating a new self in the present. Multiple autobiographies replace the notion of a unified, linear life story; we tend to select different themes, memories, and interpretations according to shifting moods and different audiences. The richer our inner and outward lives, the more stories we have. We create the stories of our lives through fragmentary memories of internal and external events, influenced by fantasy, by wishes of how it might have been, by contemplation, by our innate tendency toward narrative cohesiveness, and by cultural influences largely beyond our awareness. The purpose of creating our stories is to help us make sense of our experiences, with a recognition that the process itself alters our sense of who we are, and ultimately leads to further revision of the story.

Many forms of life review entail writing. Memoirs, journals, or spiritual autobiographies can be produced in solitary activity or within the proliferation of writing groups and classes for older people. Solitary writing can be transformative; sharing what one has written further affirms one’s life, counters stereotypical generalizations about aging and the elderly, and leaves a legacy for loved ones and the community. In a fragment in one of his notebooks, Franz Kafka described writing as a form of prayer. A writing group, at its best, can feel like a gathered meeting for worship. Published memoirs can be infused with Spirit. Marion Woodman’s account of her final illness, Bone, is subtitled "Dying into Life: A Journal of Wisdom, Strength, and Healing."

Reminiscence is also presented in "elder theater" projects springing up throughout the United States. While some of these aim to provide acting opportunities for aging actors, most of them focus on oral history, on expressing the experiences and perspectives of older people, scripted according to their own words. Audiences include residents of nursing homes and participants in senior centers, and, increasingly, elementary, high school, and college students and members of the community. Performances, whether for peers or for people of other age cohorts, reframe perceptions of aging, demonstrate diversity within the aging population, and affirm the uniqueness of everyone’s personality and experiences regardless of age.

Imagine, for example, a lifecare community in which residents can participate in ongoing elder theater activities. Imagine the participants scripting fragments of their life stories, specific memories, observations, and feelings. Imagine them performing in senior centers, schools, conferences. Now, imagine them incorporating younger people into their ensemble, perhaps to portray the elders at earlier times in their lives, and creating an intergenerational program enriching the lives of all.

Frequently overlooked as a setting for life review, Twelve Step groups offer growth, strength, healing, and redefinition of self. A composite but typical case would be of a woman in her 60s referred to a mental health practitioner for grief counseling upon the death of her husband. The counselor discovers that she has become physically as well as psychologically dependent on alcohol for relief of pain and insomnia, and to deal with feelings. Multiply vulnerable to stigmatization as an older woman, as an alcoholic, and as emotionally troubled, she presents herself as discouraged, ashamed, and without a sense of future. After a medically supervised detoxification program, she is persuaded to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. She maintains sobriety, builds a healthy recovery and a meaningful life. The counselor asks her what has been most helpful in her recovery. Her response is that doing her Fourth and Fifth Steps with her sponsor ("Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves," and "Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs") was extremely important in that it allowed her to resolve some of the conflicts, regrets, and shame that had been triggers to drink. What was most valuable, however, was the fellowship of A.A., particularly the speakers’ meetings in which recovering people "share their experiences, strengths, and hope."

One of the complexities, possibly a paradox, in doing life review is that we are the creators and first audience of our life stories, yet we need others to witness them. Aging is essentially an inward, individual process, but may best be explored with others. Whether the witness is a helping professional, a friend, family, support group, or performance audience, it validates us to tell our stories and have them heard. The empathic listener helps us retrieve or organize memories, and validates the significance of our stories. The listener, in turn, is gifted with shared memories and articulated wisdom, in addition to developing skills in active listening. I envision meetings initiating clearness committees for life review, to support people dealing with losses and fears of aging and end of life.

Ultimately, however, we weather the transition alone. Hermann Hesse, in Reflections, describes the process of profound solitude transforming us in a way that permits us to live differently in the world:

We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for in our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being.

The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, in Number Our Days, relates an imaginary conversation with a recently deceased member of the senior center she was studying, a man who had become a guide and friend to her. In her "conversation," she speaks of a woman near the end of life, who has outlived her children, whose existence has become increasingly circumscribed and painful, but who has made peace with death and thereby can live fully in the present. Myerhoff speaks of experiencing a third presence in the room as she listens to the woman reminisce: the Angel of Death with folded wings.

When people have made this peace with death, they live with greater consciousness. Every day, every moment, becomes more complete in itself.

According to the Talmud, we are not required to complete our life’s task, but neither are we permitted to lay it down. Perhaps through life review we can reframe what our life task truly is. Perhaps through loneliness, vulnerability, fear, and grief we can come to acceptance, and to wisdom.

Elizabeth Serkin

Elizabeth Serkin is a member of North Fork Worship Group of Peconic Bay Meeting in Southampton, N.Y. She is in independent practice as a clinical sociologist specializing in posttraumatic stress disorders.