It’s A Wonderful Life is one of America’s classic holiday films. It is the fictional story of George Bailey, a small town man who dreams of seeing the world, but when faced with challenges within his own family and the town in which he lives, he makes decisions which prevent him from pursuing his dream. During a low point in his life, a “guardian angel” appears and helps George review his life and envision what might have happened to his loved ones and his acquaintances if he had never existed.
The process of looking back over one’s life gained formal recognition in the 1960’s when Dr. Robert Butler identified a process which he called “life review.” He believed that all older adults, either consciously or unconsciously, undergo a reexamination of their lives in order to tie together the past and the present, work through unresolved conflicts, and develop a sense of acceptance of themselves. This review is often prompted by the older adult’s sense of mortality.
Dr. Robert Butler, psychiatrist and gerontologist, was a key figure in the field of aging from the 1950’s until his death in 2010. He was a zealous advocate for older adults through his efforts in promoting aging research, education, care, and social policy. He fought the stereotype which viewed aging as a period of decline, coining the term “ageism” in 1969 to describe discrimination against older adults. He also championed the concept that memories of the past are an important aspect of an older adult’s identity, and that one’s expression of feelings about his or her own personal history is part of the normal aging process, replacing the popular view at the time that reminiscing was a sign of senility.
The terms reminiscence and life review are often used synonymously, however professionals see reminiscence as the recall of individual memories from various periods of life, while life review involves the analysis of a wide range of memories and a determination of how they fit together over the whole of one’s life. Both may be either private or shared. When shared, they may be used as guided interventions to help treat depression or low self-esteem. In healthy individuals, reminiscence and life review can help provide a sense of connectedness to loved ones and the world, the basis for a legacy, and an opportunity to make changes to situations about which the individual is uncomfortable.
Although George Bailey was not an older adult in the film, the benefit of a life review was obvious for him. He needed a guardian angel to guide him through the process, just as a professional should guide an individual for whom this process is a form of treatment. When older adults begin to share thoughts and memories about their lives with their families, caregivers, and acquaintances during general conversation, however, an awareness of the importance of this process as a normal developmental task of aging is essential. Anyone can help promote healthy aging by showing understanding and respect for the reviews and reminiscences which older adults choose to share. At the same time, we can help the older adults in our lives find meaning and purpose by sharing our memories of time spent with them, the lessons we’ve learned from them, and the impact of their lives and accomplishments on our own.
This article presents a very simplified view of the concepts of life review and reminiscence. This holiday season, remember the role that gifts, such as time and personal attention, play in the fulfillment of these activities. Their value to someone of any age can far surpass that of items purchased from a store.
Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN