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'Life Review' Makes Most of Aging : Families: Don't waste an opportunity to talk about the past with elders, an expert says. Talking can connect the generations and build strength.

January 16, 1994|MARY JO KOCHAKIAN | HARTFORD COURANT

We hate to think about death. We loathe talking about it.

But to family therapist Terry Hargrave, the worst thing about death is not the dreadfulness or inevitability of it all but the way we squander it.

We absurdly pretend, even with aging or ill parents, that death is nowhere near, he says.

When visiting Grandma in the nursing home, we are likely to ask how she's doing. Far better, Hargrave says, would be to ask her how she used to be doing, as in 40 or 50 years ago--having her tell stories from her past.

"Life review" is a technique that Hargrave, chairman of behavioral sciences at Amarillo College in Texas, has found useful in intergenerational family therapy. It's the kind of thing healthy families do as a matter of course but which many others miss out on.

Preparing for death, Hargrave says, is "the last stage of growing up." And when it's done well, there's peace of mind for older family members and benefits for the younger ones.

For elders, "It's a time for them to make sense of their lives, figure out what their lives have meant."

It's also an opportunity for them to give their grown children a vote of confidence.

"It's a way you can connect the generations and build strength," Hargrave says. "It also helps younger people to realize that Grandma and Grandpa weren't that crazy after all -- that they have something to say that is of value, and that their feelings and thoughts were not that different."

But it doesn't happen if everyone stays clammed up, pretending.

"You empower by simply saying those things," Hargrave says. "Saying what you mean to one another, telling each other what the really important things in life are, what they've learned from life, what they'd like to be remembered for."

Life review "gives a sense that 'my life counts,' and 'my family knows (what is felt),' instead of having to guess. . . . Healthy families find a way to do that. I run into families who use video cameras to tape Grandma and Grandpa talking about the old days."

It can be done casually, or as a ritual.

"There's no limit to what you can do," Hargrave says. "Some people make up scrapbooks. I know of one family where the mother was a great cook--she created a cookbook with the family's favorite recipes and told a story for each one."

In families that do not communicate openly, life review may not seem possible, but there are indirect paths.

"I think the middle generation needs to realize that, developmentally, the aging family members are ready to talk about life in retrospect," Hargrave says. "They know that death is coming up. They're apt to want to talk about what life meant. It's helpful to them."

One approach is to just ask about what things used to be like. "What were you doing during the war? What was it like? How did your family make it during the Depression? Did anyone live with you?

"General knowledge of the historical period gives access to the personal side. . . . And they'll do that if you give them the opportunity."

Or ask about the furniture. "When I'm working with an aging family, I try to go to the older person's house. I have them show me around and tell me about their things. People will tell me about an old desk, or an old dining-room table--they say where everybody sat, talk about the good times they had. Usually people can tell me very specific information about how their family lived together emotionally, and how they went about life."

Older people who refuse usually feel guilty for having hurt someone in the past, or are in despair that they've wasted their lives, Hargrave says, "which would indicate a real depression. That's a sign you need some other kind of help.

"Death, even though it's unknown, shouldn't really be feared," he says. "We all share it; we're all going to do it. So use the opportunity to strengthen the family instead of trying to ignore it or put if off."

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