Leaving a Legacy: Values and Life Lessons

Written By: Dr. Ken Dychtwald

An Excerpt from Radical Curiosity: One Man’s Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life by Ken Dychtwald, April 2021

“I am what survives of me.” Erik Erikson

I’ve often been surprised by how much my professional interests had either collided with or been midwifed by personal reflections and actions. For example, in 2005, I oversaw my company Age Wave’s first national study about how people felt about leaving or receiving an inheritance and how they might want to live and leave a legacy. We initially asked focus group participants, “What does an inheritance mean to you?” And “How do you want to pass your inheritance on to your children and grandchildren?” Guess what? Nobody wanted to talk about the subject of inheritance and the initial focus groups were a failure. The participants complained saying, “It’s too uncomfortable a subject. Inheritance has to do with divvying up the loot. It’s about burying me before my time. It makes me uneasy to even think about.”

Feeling stymied, I said to the focus group moderator, “Try changing the word from ‘inheritance’ to ‘legacy.’ Ask people, ‘Would you like to leave a legacy? Would you like to receive a legacy?’” To our delight, the floodgates opened. Everyone was eager to share a wide range of feelings about what they were hoping to leave behind for their children, grandchildren, and the world beyond family.

When we sent our questionnaire to survey how thousands of people related to either giving or receiving a legacy, we were captivated by what emerged. First, we discovered that there were four key pillars to legacy, some more important than others. One pillar had to do with the desired disposition of any wealth or real estate that had been accumulated. This mattered quite a lot to both the givers and the receivers, but not nearly as much as the other three pillars of legacy.

Next on the hierarchy of importance were “possessions that have emotional value.” We came across a thought-provoking study that had been done at the University of Minnesota, called “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?” whose title said it all. Most families have possessions that hold great value to family members, even though on the open market they’re not worth very much. For example, my brother Alan had been so close with our grandfather Max that when he passed away, of all the grandchildren, Alan received Max’s ring. I don’t know if this ring was worth very much, but to Alan it was. I have never seen Alan without this ring on. Similarly, someone might appreciate owning their mom’s piano or their dad’s baseball glove. On a grander scale, the family elders might have owned a cabin by the lake in which many memories were shared and there’s no desire to sell it and divide the cash. Rather, the heirs might want to keep the cabin as a kind of family heirloom to be shared and enjoyed with future generations.

Even more important than money, real estate, or possessions with emotional value, the third pillar of legacy was “instructions and wishes to be fulfilled.” Here’s an example. My mom and dad had the wonderfully good fortune and of being in love and married for 71 years before my dad passed away. He had become blind in his last 10 years from diabetes-related macular degeneration and my mom had Alzheimer’s, which over a 12-year period, decimated her memories and ability to function. In his later years, my father asked my brother and me to come visit with him in Florida. On that special trip, our dad insisted that we spend a full day allowing him to tell us all his wishes for how he wanted our mom—his beloved wife—to be cared for after he died. He didn’t want her in a nursing home, and he didn’t want her to ever feel alone or frightened. He didn’t want her to ever be cared for by unkind people. And he wanted us to spend whatever might be necessary, so that our mom could always feel secure and loved. Alan and I agreed to all of that with both respect and honor—we loved our mom so much we would have done it even if he hadn’t asked. When my dad passed away, Alan relocated from New Jersey to live with our mom. As a long-distance caregiver, I tried to support them in every way I could to make sure that she remained in her own home and that she received the best home care from the kindest aides. Alan definitely did the heavier lifting, but we made every effort to work as a team. By carefully outlining his instructions and wishes to be fulfilled regarding our mom, our dad showed great respect for her, for us, and for our family bond. He also appeared to feel a certain amount of peace of mind having us look him in the eye and promise him that we would honor all his wishes.

From this study we also learned that the single most important pillar of legacy people wanted to leave—and, incredibly, that younger people wanted to receive—were “values and life lessons.” I don’t mean, “Dad, did you go to Woodstock? Or, “Mom, what’s your favorite snack food?” It’s the deeper stories that matter most, the ones that reflect core values and important life lessons learned. The ones that answer questions like, “What do you hold to be true? Who and what do you love? How do you discern right and wrong? How do you feel about religion? Do you believe in God? What do you believe about your role as a parent and what was your experience as a child? What do you feel about your work, your life, your impending death? What can we learn from you?”

Dr. Ken Dychtwald is a psychologist, gerontologist, and best-selling author of 18 books on aging and longevity-related issues, including What Retirees Want and Radical Curiosity. Since 1986, Ken has been the Founder and CEO of Age Wave, a firm created to guide companies and government groups in product and service development for boomers and mature adults. His client list has included over half the Fortune 500.

To learn more about Ken, visit www.agewave.com.

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