I often have the opportunity to lead older adult retreats around the country. During the events of the day, I like to mix in activities that cause older adults to honestly reflect on their lives. Sometimes I give each senior adult a large index card and ask them to write ten ways they do NOT want to be remembered after they die. Usually I can see their eyes cut toward one another as if they are anxious to know what others are writing. There are always a few muffled comments before the group draws quiet and begins to really think and write.
For those who choose to share their comments with the group, there are common responses, like not wanting to be remembered as mean or grumpy. One man wrote that he did not want to be remembered as a liar or a cheat. Sometimes people write about not wanting to be remembered as uncaring, selfish, lazy or as someone filled with self-pity.
Typically, the further older adults go down their list of ten things, the more personal their responses seem to become. I remember one woman who got misty-eyed as she explained that she did not want to be remembered as someone her grandchildren dreaded to visit. She went on to confess that as she had aged, she had developed a critical spirit that had driven her family away.
A silver-haired great-grandmother wrote that she didn’t want to be remembered as an old woman who spent all day in a wheelchair and talked only about the past. A 90 year-old man using a cane said that he didn’t want to be remembered as someone the caregivers dreaded to help. Another man drew serious, then talked about not wanting to be remembered as a pompous know-it-all who lectured his children and grandchildren at every opportunity.
Over the years, I have discovered that this activity often hits a nerve for many older adults. Like holding a mirror in front of your face, it can be painful to recognize ourselves in the answers. Yet it offers a great opportunity for change.
Not long ago, a woman told me that she carries the worn index card in her purse as a reminder of how she doesn’t want to behave. The exercise had made her stop and think about how she talks to her daughter and grandchildren. She realized that she had been behaving in ways that were contradictory to building the healthy relationships she wanted to have. She confessed that she had been a nit-picker for much of her late life, but she discovered that it wasn’t too late to stop. The card, she said, was her daily reminder.
The point is, when you look at a situation in reverse, there is a good chance that you will discover a deep well of truth. By looking at the question of how you do NOT want to be remembered after you die, you may see things in yourself that you’d rather not see. But that is just the beginning! Once you see yourself more clearly, you are better able to make changes that will impact your life and the lives of others in a positive way, no matter your age. So, go ahead. Give the exercise a try and see for yourself.
Each month, Missy Buchanan shares insight and strategies for rethinking 50-plus ministry. Her latest book, Aging Faithfully: 28 Days of Prayer, is now available. You can find Missy online at www.missybuchanan.com.