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Life Review and Ministry with Older Adults
Life Review first became an effort for me during my work at Springdale Presbyterian Church as the Parish Nurse Minister. I had been concerned and unable to find a satisfactory way to connect with one particular member of the congregation who was in his middle eighties and only able to focus on what he could no longer do. He spent his days sitting in his living room alone. He had become so bitter about the losses of late life that he had in effect driven away those who loved him.
The Pastor and I had many discussions about this particular man and as a result he suggested that I facilitate a Life Review Group. Our hope was that through such an effort we might prevent others from suffering such anguish as they neared the end of their lives.
Life Review offers an opportunity to look back over a person's life and understand that he/she did all right. Each of us has scars, but scars make us who we are. In looking back we can see that what at the time may have seemed a great trial or disaster, actually served to build character or strength in us. It is only in looking back that we are able to recognize what has happened. At the time we experience a problem we are involved in trying to keep up and not sink with the problem. It is only after it is all over and we can look back that we can see how we have changed as a result. It is like breaking a bone; after it is healed if you look at the x-ray you will see that the bone is thicker at the point of the prior break. It has actually become stronger because of the break. This is not saying that the break was not painful or if given a choice we would not have broken the bone but we are often stronger because of what we have suffered or experienced.
It is through looking back that we can come to an understanding and acceptance of ourselves. Sometimes we may not like the decisions that we made in earlier life but late life is the time to accept ourselves for who we are. It is at this time that older adults can stop beating up on themselves and recognize that they made the best decisions they could with the situation that was at hand.
Older adults have lived through difficult times; the Great Depression, World War II, floods and droughts, sickness, and for many the loss of job and income for their family. Somehow they managed to survive those times. They may have had to do without comforts and at times the essentials of life, but still, they did survive. This is the time for them to recognize what qualities or gifts got them through those difficult times and to realize that they still have those qualities.
This is the time to name our God given gifts. Sometimes this is hard for older adults to do. They do not see qualities such as hard work, administration, wisdom, or planning as the gifts that St. Paul is talking about in 1Corinthians 12. Whatever those gifts were that served them so well in their younger life, those gifts are still a part of them. God did not take those gifts away because they grew older. Now is the time to realize that they can utilize those same gifts in late life as well as they did in earlier life.
Life Review offers the potential for dealing with issues of forgiveness whether individuals need to forgive themselves or others. This is a time when individuals can say, "I wish I had," and even though one cannot change what happened all those years ago it helps us to accept ourselves to name what we did. Often it is a surprise to realize that it may still be possible to tell the other person(s) what you wish you had done differently. This offers the opportunity to teach forgiveness rituals. Forgiveness is one of the most important topics covered during Life Review. Richard Morgan (1990) describes several exercises to assist individuals in dealing with the issues of forgiveness. One woman sent me a letter after the Life Review sessions were completed describing how she had finally found peace after writing a letter to her father and tearing it up and burning it in the fireplace. Another individual described an incident when he was parenting a teen-age daughter and the daughter had stayed out all night. All of us who are parents can understand the anguish he must have felt at the time. He regretted that when she came home he did not embrace her and tell her how glad he was that she was safe. The discussion went to the story of the Prodigal Son and the similarities. It also came up in discussion that it was not too late for him to tell her today what he regretted.
One individual told about living in the upstairs of their home in 1937 when the Ohio River flooded all of downtown Louisville. She told stories of the physician coming in a boat to give them inoculations and others coming to bring them food. These stories show the great courage and faith of her family.
These individuals were children during the Great Depression. There are so many stories of how their parents managed during these hard economic times. These people wonder today how their parents managed to do the things that they did. How can you describe the emotions that are present when a man tells of wanting a bicycle when he was about ten years old that cost $14 and his great surprise on Christmas to find that bicycle waiting for him. He still wonders how his parents managed to save enough to buy it for him.
This is a generation that did not learn to describe their feelings. Men especially were not to talk about how they felt. Richard Morgan (1996) has a guided meditation about life being a river in his book. When I first tried to do this meditation the participants did not understand and they had a very hard time seeing life as a river. I finally learned that to make this work I had to supply examples during the exercise. I described the tributaries feeding into the river of life as possibly being teachers, aunts, uncles, neighbors, or grandparents. When I supplied ideas of what might make up the different parts of the river of their life, everyone in the group experienced what the meditation was about. One woman said when it was over that she could not see ahead, it was as if there was a fog rising about the water and it blocked her view.
Life Review is a method to assist older adults in the developmental task of integration of their past life with their present life and to offer hope for their future. It is an opportunity for older adults to recognize the hand of God in their lives as well as to recognize how similar their individual stories are to many of the stories in Scripture. It also allows persons to recognize their many God given gifts and to realize that those gifts and strengths are still a part of them. Throughout the Life Review process there is the opportunity to recognize what part God has played throughout life. It is in acknowledging the part God has played in life that the realization comes that each story often has a counterpart contained in Scripture. It is recognizing the part God has played in our lives that persons come to understand that they are the " beloved of God."
All of the Life Review process helps the older adult to realize that they have contributed in some way to the world. Hopefully they will be able to recognize that they have made a difference. This increases their strength to face the remainder of life and especially the end of life issues. Life Review is an excellent way to assist the older adult to accomplish the developmental task of integration versus disintegration (Erikson).
Life Review has been offered at Springdale with four different groups during the past three years and now there is an ongoing Senior Spirituality Group that meets monthly. The principle resource that I have utilized in facilitating Life Review groups is the book Remembering Your Story (1996) by Richard L. Morgan.
The Senior Spirituality group is reading Dear Old Man and discussing it at their monthly gatherings. They always have an additional topic to remember in addition to reading the book. They bring in pictures or newspaper clippings or some memento to share with the group. We have had dolls, newspapers, American flags and sparklers at those meetings.
I hope that I have whetted your appetite and you can hardly wait to start a Life Review group in your own faith community. I have attached a bibliography of materials that I use when facilitating Life Review groups to give you a head start in starting your own group.
Becker, Arthur H. (1986). Ministry with Older Persons, A Guide for Clergy and Congregations. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.
Bianchi, Eugenel (1989). Aging as a Spiritual Journey. New York, NY: The Crossroads Publishing Company.
Birren, James E. and Deutchman., Donna E. (1991). Guiding Autobiography Groups for Older Adults. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Dunson, Miriam (1999). A Very Present Help, Psalm Studies for Older Adults. Louisville, KY. Geneva Press.
Eittreim, Jean Brown (1998). That Reminds Me, Family Story-Starters for Passing on the Faith. Minneapolis, MN. Augsburg.
Fischer, Kathleen (1995). Autumn Gospel, Women in the Second Half of Life. New York. Paulist Press.
Fischer, Kathleen (1998). Winter Grace, Spirituality and Aging. Nashville, TN. Upper Room Books.
Gross, Deborah V. (1994). Beyond the Gold Watch. Louisville, KY. Westminster John Knox Press.
Hulme, William E. (1986). Vintage Years. Philadelphia, PA. The Westminster Press.
Hutchison, Frank (1991). Aging Comes of Age. Louisville, KY. Westminster/John Knox Press.
Jackowsil, Karol A. (1994). Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die. Notre Dame, IN. Ave Maria Press.
Lucado, Max (1987). God Came Near. United States: Multnomah Press.
Maitland, David J. (1991). Aging as Counterculture, A Vocation for the Later Years. New York, NY: The Pilgrim Press.
Morgan, Richard L. (1990). No Wrinkles On The Soul. Nashville, TN. Upper Room Books.
Morgan, Richard L. (1996). Remembering Your Story: A Guide to Spiritual Autobiography. Nashville, TN. Upper Room Books.
Newman, Barbara M. and Newman, Philip (1987). Development Through Life: A Psychological Approach. Brooks/Cole Publishers.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. (1972). The Wounded Healer. New York, NY: Image Books Doubleday.
Paul, Susan (1997). Your Story Matters. Richland, WA: Inner Edge Publishing.
Raub, John Jacob (1999). Who Told You That You Were Naked? New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing.
Rolheiser, Ronald (1999). The Holy Longing, The Search for a Christian Spirituality. New York, NY. Doubleday.
Rupp, Joyce (1998). Dear Heart Come Home, The Path of Midlife Spirituality. New York, NY. The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Thibault, Jane Marie (1993). A Deepening Love Affair, The Gift of God in Later Life. Nashville, TN. Upper Room Books.
Thorsheim, Howard and Roberts, Bruce (2000). I Remember When, Activity Ideas to Help People Reminisce. Forest Knolls, CA: Elder Books.
Thorsheim, Howard and Roberts, Bruce (1990). Reminiscing Together. Minneapolis, MN. CompCare Publishers.
Welch, Elizabeth (1991). Learning to Be 85. Nashville, TN. Upper Room Books.
Wells, Charles (1995). Dear Old Man, Letters to Myself On Growing Old. Nashville, TN. Backbone Press.
Wiederkehr, Macrina (1998). Gold in your Memories. Notre Dame, IN. Ave Maria Press.
Wiederkehr, Macrina (1995). The Song of the Seed. San Francisco, CA. HarperCollins Publishing.
Copyright © 2002, Wayne E. Oates Institute. All rights reserved.