What does it mean to leave a legacy? For some, it comes down to stuff—the legacy of what you’ve accumulated over a lifetime. But personal historian Judy Shutts challenges that concept with something she deems far more valuable: a legacy of stories.
“Most people think of a legacy as material goods—a business, cars, money, or family heirlooms,” explains Shutts. A legacy of stories, however, is the gift of your life in your own words.
And you don’t have to be famous to have fascinating stories. Everyone has something to pass on to future generations; everyone has a story to tell.
It’s particularly valuable for seniors to leave their loved ones a legacy of stories, whether they’ve moved to assisted living or they’re staying at home. Trinkets gather dust and money gets spent, but family history lives on as long as we keep sharing it.
Recording Your Loved One’s Stories
When I was in high school, I interviewed my grandmother for a project about the Great Depression. At her funeral last year, I was able to share some of her stories and give copies of that written record to family members, many of whom had never heard her version of key life events.
Though I treasure those few pages, I wish I also had the audiotapes of our conversations to hear my grandmother’s words in her own voice.
Shutts affirms the value of hearing our loved ones’ stories in her work with Voices In Time, a company that provides professional guidance and state-of-the-art audio recording equipment to help people preserve their life stories in their own voice. Recording sessions take the form of guided conversations in which professional historians—based in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska—help draw out special stories from someone’s life.
Seniors’ stories might include recollections of childhood, relationships, and their own parents and grandparents. Stories may also include the values, mentors, and moments that shaped their life. These stories are sometimes humorous and sometimes sad, but together they make up the sum total of a life.
“Hearing the audio is powerful because you become immersed in the stories and internalize them,” says Shutts. Written stories are also valuable, she says, recommending that family members transcribe audio or video conversations with their senior loved ones. “Written stories are good for reading and digesting at a moment’s notice; they also work well if you plan to make a family history book.”
Multigenerational Benefits of Storytelling
Not only do seniors enjoy the therapeutic benefits that come from sharing their stories, but younger family members benefit as well.
“Research shows that children are more resilient if they know their family’s stories,” says Shutts.
It’s true: In the 1990s, psychologist Sara Duke noticed that of the children with whom she worked, the ones who knew a lot about their families tended to do better when they faced challenges. According to a New York Times article on the topic, “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
And the benefits of stories extend to family members well beyond childhood.
“The stories about ourselves and the stories we know about our family make a big difference,” Dr. Jody McVittie told New Jersey Family magazine. “Our sense of connection to our intergenerational family helps us moderate the impact of stress in our everyday lives. And that sense of connection creates resilience.”
CHIME IN: How has the legacy of your family’s stories made an impact on you?