Special Edition Navigator- Legacy
By Mary Young and Allen Davis
Philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychologists all say essentially the same thing: As people reach their late 70s, they begin reflecting upon their legacy. They ask themselves how—or even whether—others will remember them. “Some day soon … there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead—when I exist in no one's memory,” wrote Stanford University psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom (1989).
Every stage of adulthood presents specific tasks, according to Gene D. Cohen, one of the most influential adult-development theorists of the 20th century (Argonon, 2013). By the time people reach their late 60s, they are drawn to reviewing their life and telling stories about it. They want to share the wisdom and lessons they’ve learned. As they move into their late 70s, their task is to distill the major themes in their lives and consider whether, or how, they might have a positive impact on the world.
Faced with the fundamental question—Who will remember me?—parents and grandparents have an advantage. Their name may be passed on to younger family members. Their story becomes part of the next generations’ stories, helping them to better understand themselves.
The Challenge for Solo Agers
A Solo Ager can’t assume their name and memory will survive, even for a little while. For some, this is simply the way things are. For many others, it becomes a nagging concern. Have I made any lasting contribution to the individuals and community around me? Who will remember these things and perhaps even pass them on to others? How soon will my name be spoken for the very last time?
Fortunately, Solo Agers who are grappling with these questions can take steps now to ensure their names are remembered and their lives have, in fact, made at least a tiny difference. Moreover, they needn’t have great wealth or influence to do so.
What follows are examples of legacies—including financial or material possessions but placing greater emphasis on non-financial legacies—that Solo Agers might leave and, in doing so, give meaning to their lives and be remembered. Individuals can do this on their own, but organizations and groups that serve elders, including senior centers, senior living communities, and faith communities can support Solo Agers by helping them engage with this work.
Leaving a Financial or Material Legacy
Many older adults worry that their living expenses may eventually outstrip their incomes and any other assets they may have set aside. A financial planner can provide strategies for addressing those concerns and, in many cases, ensure that something is left over to leave as a legacy.
A financial planner often can help Solo Agers use financial instruments, including certain life insurance policies and types of annuities, to convert some portion of their financial assets to become a legacy. The $50,000 that might be sitting in a 401K account, for example, could turn into ten $5,000 gifts to support causes the Solo Ager cares about.
For instance, an unmarried gay couple began working with a financial planner more than 20 years ago. While still in their 40s, each bought a life insurance policy so that if one of them died, the surviving partner could use the policy’s payout to make up for the deceased partner’s half of the mortgage and other shared expenses. The men are now in their 70s and each has enough retirement income and benefits such that they no longer need a backup to cover routine expenses. Consequently, one partner decided to revise his insurance policy and instead named as beneficiary the university where his interest in conservation had been nurtured. When he dies, the university will receive the face value of the insurance policy to support an annual seminar in forest conservation. Because he has made these arrangements while he is living, he has the pleasure of attending the symposium and experiencing firsthand the legacy he was creating.
A financial planner also can help Solo Agers think about gifting other material assets they own. One book collector decided to give each of his treasured volumes to a friend or acquaintance who shared similar tastes. The gifts spawned many engaging conversations, which, in turn, increased his sense of satisfaction. Donating a possession—for example, a musical instrument, an unused vehicle, or even a home once a person no longer needs it—to a deserving nonprofit isn’t only a tax advantage. It may lead to new opportunities to become closely involved with the recipients.
In this case, Solo Agers have an advantage over those with family. They are freer to choose beneficiaries because there are fewer assumptions about who those should be. Do they want to leave a parting gift to a sibling? Nieces and nephews? Cousins? Perhaps it’s someone unrelated: a neighbor; a long-time caregiver; or the brainy kid who delivered their newspaper, talked endlessly about the fish and amphibians he studied in a nearby pond, and will soon start college. A Solo Ager’s financial legacy also could benefit a group, organization, institution, or a cause they believe in.
How Solo Agers Can Create a Financial or Material Legacy
- Name a nonprofit as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy.
- Name one or more individuals, organizations, or institutions as beneficiaries of a retirement
- Use an annuity to be distributed after death to individuals or organizations as endowments,
scholarships, or annual gifts.
- Leave real estate to a charity or, in some cases, an individual.
- Give significant possessions to individuals who would value or use them.
The laws and regulations governing personal finance can be complicated. Leaving a financial legacy requires advance planning and professional guidance. The Solo Ager who endowed the conservation symposium, for example, could do so because he had bought an insurance policy 20 years earlier. Once his financial needs changed, he had choices about whether and when to use it as a charitable gift.
For many Solo Agers, leaving a financial legacy is not a possibility, which is why this article primarily explores other types of legacies. Money and possessions aren’t the only items of value Solo Agers can pass on. The most meaningful and personally rewarding legacies may lie closer to the heart. The next section describes how Solo Agers can clarify what legacy they can leave.
Lessons from One Solo’s Legacy
Miss Rumphius is an award-winning children’s book, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1982). It is also a charming story about one Solo Ager’s legacy. Miss Alice Rumphius lives with two cats and a cockatiel in a gingerbread cottage on the coast of Maine, where clutches of local children pay her visits. They come to see her treasures and listen to her stories about traveling as a young woman to tropical islands, jungles, and snow-capped mountains. And they come for her homemade cookies.
When these children grow older, no doubt they will remember the intriguing old lady and her stories. Perhaps they also will remember what her grandfather said to her when she was their age, which she then shared with them. No matter where you go or what you do in your life, she said, “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”
But that wasn’t Miss Rumphius’s only legacy. When she wasn’t entertaining neighborhood kids or reminiscing, she wandered the pathways nearby, scattering lupine seeds.
Those pink and purple lupines bloom year after year. Her friendships with young neighbors and the stories and lessons she told them probably also have a lasting impact. In fact, even the readers of her story benefit from her legacy as a positive model of solo aging, an alternative to the lingering stereotypes of cat ladies and old maids.
Cooney may not have been thinking about that when she wrote Miss Rumphius. Yet the story affirms that non-monetary gifts can convey a simple but compelling message: “I was here. My life had meaning. In my own small way, I had an impact on the world.”
This is the legacy that many late-life Solo Agers yearn to leave, and there are multiple ways they can do so.
A Legacy Doesn’t Have to Have Monetary Value
To create a legacy that feels meaningful, givers first need to reflect upon what they’ve learned from life, what they believe in or value, what they want to pass on to others.
In Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers (2018), Guest Editor Sara Zeff Geber offers two worksheets that can help Solo Agers do this, either alone or in a group. The first worksheet asks them to reflect upon the tangible and intangible ways their lives have been blessed by what others have passed down to them. In the second worksheet, they record the legacies they’d like to leave for others.
Contemplating the first set of questions might stir up unexpected memories: The reader might remember an elder who taught them, by example, how to live a vibrant life, no matter their age. Or
think about the nest egg left by great-uncle Harry that paid for their high-school trip to Guatemala, which ultimately led them to become a Spanish teacher. They might feel gratitude for the camp counselor who got them excited about rock-climbing. Or the stranger sitting next them on a long flight who described what it had been like to start kindergarten not knowing a word of English—a story that forever shaped their views on immigration.
The second worksheet asks the reader to think about lessons and values they would like to pass on to others (and, more specifically, to whom?). As in the first exercise, a legacy can take any form: money, small gifts or mementos, stories and wisdom, emotional support, acts of kindness and caring. What matters is that it’s something meaningful.
The final question is a critical one: “What are some of the actions you can take or changes you can make that would help you create these legacies?”
How Solo Agers Can Create Non-Financial Forms of Legacy
- Written messages such as an ethical will or personal letters
- Recording their story on paper, video, or audio recording
- Preserving their family’s history through stories
- Writing their own obituary and planning their memorial service
- Making their actions their legacy
While much of the advice on leaving a legacy automatically assumes that having children and grandchildren is the norm, Solo Agers can modify this advice to fit their own situations.
Here are some low- or no-cost approaches to legacy-creation:
- Written or recorded messages: An ethical will is a document in which the writer sets forth their life lessons, values, and hopes to pass on to family members or friends. Speaking from the heart, the writer expresses personal feelings (love, pride, regret, apologies, even confessions), fondest memories, and wishes. It isn’t a legal document but rather a meaningful gift to the living and perhaps even to future generations. Once written or recorded, it might get tucked away, to be shared at a time of the writer’s choosing, before or after death.
Writing ethical wills was a common Judaic practice in the 12th Century, although it fell out of use until recently. Today everyone from psychologists to clergy and hospice programs recommends it as a rewarding exercise. Some estate attorneys and financial planners suggest that clients draft an ethical will before they choose any financial beneficiaries, as a way to reflect upon the values and experiences that have been most important in their lives.
- Preserving family history: Even if a person has no children of their own, they still can be the keeper and transmitter of family history. It is a powerful role that others in their family may not have time for or interest in. A Solo Ager who takes on this task is creating another kind of legacy that will be passed on.
There are hundreds of ways to tell or preserve a story: talking around the kitchen table, narrating the pages of a photo album, sharing a recipe, teaching someone an old camp song or passing on skills. If someone is the only person who remembers fragments of family history, they can take action so they don’t get lost. Even if others don’t understand, someday someone will be grateful for what they did. This, too, can be part of their legacy.
- Writing an obituary, planning a memorial service: Rather than leaving these to chance, a Solo Ager can take matters into their own hands. They can sum up their life in a written obituary that includes the facts, experiences, and emblematic stories they would like people to know or remember about them. As long as they communicate this document’s existence and where to find it, survivors will be grateful they won’t have to dig up the information on their own.
Solo Agers might also want to plan their own memorial service: who they’d like to give the eulogy, the readings (and who should read them), the setting, the music, even the flowers or objects they’d like displayed: the well-worn fedora that became a signature item, a hooked rug they were most proud of, the photos that tell their story. If the Solo Ager belongs to a religious community that adheres to a set liturgy, they can think, instead, about what they’d like to have as part of a reception afterwards.
In one way or another, storytelling is at the heart of every one of these options. But that isn’t the only way to leave a lasting mark. Solo Agers also can find ways to engage with the world through their relationships with other people.
Making actions into legacy.
Brad Aronson (2020) has written a wonderful book called Humankind: Changing the World One Small Act at a Time. In it, he describes small acts of kindness that people have performed and the difference they have made, whether to one person, to a community, or to the larger world. It is unlikely anyone could read the book without thinking about how they, too, could make a difference.
What Professionals and Organizations Can Do
Every older adult, solo or non-solo, needs encouragement and support to do this work, which is why elder-focused organizations (senior centers, councils on aging, religious communities, and senior living communities) and professions (estate attorneys, financial planners, aging life-care advisors, social workers, therapists, and clergy) have an important role to play.
How Organizations and Professionals Can Support Solo Agers' Legacy-Creation
- Recognize that life-review and legacy-creation are important tasks for older adults.
- Educate the elders being served by naming the issues and questions that often arise in later life.
- Support elders by helping them address these issues and identify actions they can take now.
- Build connections between generations, among participants in a legacy workshop, and between elders and the broader community.
- Name the names and celebrate the legacies of those who came before.
The first step for organizations is to recognize that life-review and legacy-creation are important tasks for older adults. Those not familiar with adult-development theory can brush up on the psychological tasks that are typical when people reach their 60s, 70s, 80s, and older, because they are what make legacy-creation important.
Professionals can educate elders by naming these issues and questions as normal and legitimate concerns, even for people who don’t have money or material goods to pass on, and for those who don’t have children or grandchildren.
Organizations and professionals can support elders by offering programs, discussions, workshops, and other activities to help them address these issues and identify actions they can take now. Virtually all of the suggestions offered previously to Solo Agers can be adapted to a group setting, such as a program focused on legacy or a workshop on specific aspects such as writing an ethical will.
Building connections between generations, among participants in a legacy workshop, and between elders and the broader community is a great service that professionals and organizations can provide.
- Northampton Neighbors (an affiliate of the Village Movement) partnered with an undergraduate public-health class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on a semester-long intergenerational storytelling project, which now has been repeated for several semesters. Working in pairs, the participants meet by Zoom or in person to ask questions about one another’s lives and share experiences. Some of these stories are recorded, with the partners’ consent, and are now housed in the StoryCorps archive at the Library of Congress (Northampton Neighbors, 2022).
- Foxfire was an experiential education program that got its start in southern Appalachia in the late 1960s. Secondary school students interviewed older residents in the region to learn from them about lost arts, local folklore, traditions, and crafts and the final write-ups were later published as a book. Other schools across the country developed Foxfire projects to document unique and disappearing phenomena in their local communities. No one called it legacy at the time, but that is clearly what this process of intergenerational connection was about (Wiggington, 1972).
- A more recent example is the oral history project run by the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA. Underwritten by a private donor, the program hires young people to interview and record elders—including, in some cases, their own relatives—to collect personal perspectives on the changing nature of the Yiddish language and culture and Jewish identity.
- The Legacy Project sponsors a “Listen to a Life” competition, as well as other intergenerational storytelling programs. Contestants, who must be ages 8 to 18, interview a grandparent or “grandfriend” (note the inclusive language!) and write a 300-word essay based on their conversation. The judges are looking for “an evocative, creative story that captures the essence of a person’s life, or a critical moment or experience” (Legacy Project, 2023, para. 8). The Legacy Project’s website offers a wealth of interview questions and tips as well as winning essays and many recorded stories.
Organizations can consider similar ways to remember those who are no longer among them. They can design an annual event where participants are invited to show photographs, light candles, share a memory, or simply speak aloud the names of those who are gone. The altars built for the Mexican Day of the Dead traditions and the Kaddish prayer for the dead in Judaism are just two examples. Participating in such a ceremony or ritual can be poignant but also comforting, as those who have gathered realize that someday, their name will also be remembered.
Whenever people remember those who are gone—whether their parents, children, friends, or strangers—they can’t help but engage in their own legacy work. Listening to others’ names and stories puts life into a broader context. It reminds people of the things that are passed on from person to person and encourages everyone to share their own gifts. Remembering those who are gone connects each individual to those who came before and those who will follow.
These can be meaningful experiences for anyone. But for many Solo Agers, the assurance that they will be remembered, and the reminder that it’s not too late to shape their legacy, are particularly valuable.
Mary Young holds a doctorate in organizational behavior. She is research director at Davis Financial Group, in Hadley, MA, where she writes and edits the firm’s newsletter, The Soloist. Allen Davis, CFP, is managing partner at Davis Financial Group.
Argonon, M. (2013). From Cicero to Cohen: Developmental theories of aging, from antiquity to the Present. The Gerontologist, 54, 30–9.