Leaving Legacies by Tom Meuser PhD, Social Work Professor and Director of UNE’s Center for Excellence in Aging & Health

Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova on Unsplash

UNE was proud to announce Tom Meuser, PhD this year as the founding director for the university’s new Center for Excellence in Aging and Health, and the School of Social Work was equally proud to claim him as faculty!  As this month’s blog theme is Aging & Ethics, we’re very excited to share a piece he wrote for us on Leaving Legacies.  We hope you enjoy!

Leaving Legacies

by Tom Meuser PhD

Has anyone ever asked you about the legacy you will leave after death? Probably not. Open discussion of death is not something we do particularly well in the U.S.

The reality, of course, is that we all die eventually, and we all leave legacies for future generations. I’m a psychologist and a gerontologist, and I tend to think about these issues. The topic of death is rarely foreign or uncomfortable for persons past the age of 75. It is simply reality. The notion of a personal legacy is not nearly as apparent, however.

For the past decade, my graduate students and I have interviewed older adults about their life stories. I led the Life Review Project at my prior institution, the University of Missouri – St. Louis. I’m planning to continue and extend this work now at UNE.

Life story interviewing – a form of narrative gerontology – is more than just stories; it is about how life events shape a person past to present. It is also about hopes and wishes for the future – even in someone with just days or months to live. We all have futures, and these extend well past our biological lives. This is where legacy comes in.

A legacy is anything about an individual that continues to have an impact on the lives of others in the future. Legacies can be positive, negative or anything in between. They can reflect our actions and accomplishments, as much as our values and strongly held beliefs. For me, as an academic, my legacy includes all the papers and book chapters I’ve published over the years, including this blog post! These are product legacies. My children are my biological legacies. There are also property legacies, too. My old camera collection may be a legacy for my children – if they value it – or it could leave my family and serve as a legacy object for someone else I will never know.

That’s the fun thing about legacies. You can guess at your legacies – hope for some – but you will never know your true impact in all areas. What you value about yourself might not be what others will value when you are gone. If I remain sentient after death (i.e., as a spirit), I expect to enjoy watching what happens to those in my circle for many years to come.

Legacies are not just memories. Students who have trained under me know that I love to teach with video clips. I’m a lifelong photographer and videographer, and I’ve generated hundreds of hours of footage over my career. I have a library of video clips concerning all aspects of aging. These inform my teaching in a big way. I would not be the teacher I am today, in fact, without the co-teachers who shared their lives and wisdom with me on camera over the years. Many are now dead, but they live in my work. I am the keeper of their legacies as teachers.

Tom Marge 2017

One such person is pictured above – Marjorie Allen. I first met Marge when she was 90 years old. She attended a focus group on mobility change in aging that I was running. Her warmth and desire to help others was infectious, and we became fast friends. Marge lived near the campus and she soon became one of my co-teachers in person and on camera. I held graduate classes in assessment and life story interviewing in her living room.  She sat for many videos over the years.  UNE students in my future classes will get to know her very well.

Marge was an educator, too. She taught elementary school children for her whole career, spanning over 7 decades. She retired, finally, at the age of 93. She lost her husband in her middle 70’s and continued to live independently in the 2-story home they built together in the 1950’s. I often refer to Marge as a “poster child” for successful aging in place. She did everything right to stay in her home until the very end. She died just shy of her 100th Birthday. I was present with her during her last lucid moment before death – when this photo was taken, in fact. It was a privilege to know her in life, and an even greater privilege for me to share her legacy now.

How will you live on in the hearts, minds and activities of others when you are no longer here? I am hopeful that this brief post has gotten you thinking. I find hope and purpose in considering my own and others’ legacies. Whether there is an afterlife in the traditional sense or not, I take comfort in knowing that my legacy will continue. In this way, I will continue, too.

My recent research has focused on legacy beliefs in aging and across generations. I spoke on the TEDx stage about this last year: TED TALK here.  I’m preparing my next studies on legacy here in Maine right now.

This work is based on a simple premise and question. As persons face death, I believe there’s comfort to be had in knowing that one’s own children and close others understand our individual legacies. If you accept this premise, then the question follows easily. Do adult children of older parents really understand parental legacy? And by how much?

My students and I have interviewed and surveyed many older parents and their adult children since I first asked this question in 2016. A consistent finding is that overlapping views on parental legacy are desired, but rarely present in the large proportions. No matter how well a parent and child know and care about each other, there’s always room for more discussion and mutual understanding on the topic of legacy.

I will speak at the Gerontological Society of America Meeting in Boston later this week on this work. My poster focuses on my efforts to develop a clinical measure of legacy beliefs – us psychologists love measures – and some of the challenges inherent in such an endeavor.

To do good research on this, one needs a good measure. But, any effort at measuring

Death and Life Gustav Klimt.jpg
Death and Life, Gustav Kimt

legacy beliefs risks changing the very beliefs one wants to study. A legacy can be just about anything. A measure requires a list from which to choose. Reducing 10,000 potential legacies to a list of 100 is the problem for which I do not, yet, have a good answer. My poster asks my colleagues to weigh in on this question. I look forward to the discussions to come!

I direct a new center at UNE – the Center for Excellence in Aging & Health (CEAH). This Center is charged with growing impactful, applied research on aging at this institution. One pillar of this work, in my framing, is that it be narrative-informed. Too much research and intervention in aging is based on expert opinion and the desires of investigators. What about the older adults living the problem or challenge at the heart of this work? Narrative-informed research is inclusive of these views.

Just as my teaching is informed by the narratives of my co-teachers, so must my research be informed by those I wish to serve. All research starts with a question. Narrative-informed research in aging includes older adults in forming these questions. Older adults become co-investigators with me in this sense. Their legacies are assured in the work that follows just as in the classroom. I like the symmetry of this. How about you?

Featured Photo: Epigenetics by Matt Forsythe