A while ago, there was an interesting post on the Changing Aging blog on the topic of memoir and life review. The author, Gaea Yudron, the director of Sage’s Play, an organization that promotes successful aging, wrote. “As we grow older, we feel an ever-stronger need to understand and integrate the meaning and lessons of our lives.” She cites gerontologist Robert Butler, who 50 years ago proposed that growing awareness of one’s mortality late in life prompts a life review—a process of recalling and seeking to integrate past experiences and conflicts. I like the quote she takes from Butler: “Only in old age with the proximity of death can one truly experience a personal sense of the entire life cycle. That makes old age a unique stage of life and makes the review of life at that time equally unique.” In other words, only when the future has been foreshortened are we able to make sense of the whole of the lives we have lived.
As a therapist who works with younger adults, older adults, and seniors, I find that adults of all ages think about the past. The older adults I work with are more likely to spontaneously bring up events that occurred earlier in life, though. They also think differently about the past. Younger adults are more likely to be looking for past experiences that may have shaped characteristics they see in themselves. They’re searching for answers to questions such as, what in my life history made me mistrust men? What made me want to rescue everyone? Older adults often are seeking to answer a broader question: how did I become the person I am? There is often greater appreciation of the uniqueness of their life circumstances, and thus greater appreciation of their own uniqueness.
I think of my work with a 66-year-old man who has been disabled for about 10 years and before that moved from one low-paying, low-skilled job to another. As a teenager, he excelled academically and earned a university scholarship. He subsequently received graduate training in the medical field. He and everyone else viewed him as a success. However, he only practiced his profession for a few years before leaving it to ramble across the country, taking whatever work he could find to support himself. When he became disabled, he returned to the town where he grew up and now lives in a small apartment there. He came to therapy not so much to change his life as to understand what had happened to him. How had he lived a life different from what he expected and become the person he now is? Had he chosen his course in life or been driven by forces he didn’t understand? After months of life review, he has a clearer picture of what happened. Along with this, he has achieved greater self-acceptance. He’s decided that, although he may not look successful in the eyes of the world, he lived a life that made sense given his make-up and the challenges he encountered.
Not only can my clients benefit from exploring their pasts; I can, too. I have been thinking especially about my faith journey. I expect that I’ll eventually write about some of that journey on the blog. For now, I encourage readers who are past mid-life to join with me in sifting the soil of memory, extracting the gold of greater self-knowledge.