Exploring Retirement


Welcome to the June 2014 edition of Exploring Retirement. Each month we provide articles on well-being in retirement and also feature activities to explore. Our intention is to build up a resource that can be used by anyone who is nearing retirement or who has recently retired. The material may also be useful to group leaders and discussion facilitators working with recently retired individuals.

This month we are looking at "life review", a concept that was first proposed by the late Professor Robert Butler. I had the great pleasure of meeting Professor Butler in 2007 when I was in New York on a Churchill Travel Fellowship. Robert Butler is best known in the United States for his 1975 book "Why Survive? Being Old In America", which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. We met in his office in the International Longevity Centre (ILC), the policy research centre concerned with population ageing and longevity. Professor Butler founded the ILC to help society address longevity and population ageing in positive and productive ways, typically using a life course approach that serves to highlight older people's productivity and contributions to family and society as a whole. There are ILC's in many major cities around the world as part of a Global Alliance whose partners carry out their mission through developing ideas, undertaking research and creating fora for debate and action, in which older people are key stakeholders.

Feedback from readers is welcomed. Please let us know your thoughts on life review and, if you have conducted your own review, how did you go about it and would you recommend it to others? E-mail your comments to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

Life Review

"The unexamined life is not worth living" - Socrates

Sixty years ago most people thought that reminiscing was a sign of senility - what we now call Alzheimer's disease. In that era, many geriatrics researchers confined themselves to the study of people who were long-term residents in hospitals and nursing homes. The results of these studies only served to reinforce the stereotypes of old people as confused, decrepit, and leading meaningless lives. It was believed that their reminiscences only served to confirm that they were living in the past.

When Robert Butler joined the US National Institute of Health's Laboratory of Clinical Science In 1955, he chose to study healthy older people, age 65 and above. He found that, contrary to what had been accepted up to then, healthy older people who lived in the community were both mentally alert and active. During this time he slowly became aware that the people he was studying seemed to be going through a profound internal process that focused on reviewing their life and trying to come to terms with everything that had happened to them. Far from living in the past or exhibiting "wandering of the mind", as was commonly thought, the older people he met were engaged in the important psychological task of making sense of the life they had lived.

Since Professor Butler's early work, life review has become a mainstream therapy often used with elderly people. It has been shown to produce a number of positive outcomes including higher self-esteem and increased life satisfaction. To quote Professor Butler "the life review process is characterised by the progressive return to consciousness of past experiences and particularly the resurgence of unresolved conflicts that can be looked at again and reintegrated. If the reintegration is successful, it can give new significance and meaning to one's life."

Featured activity - structured life review

it is important to stress that life review is a natural process . The average person, who is in no need of therapy, may still find it helpful to recall their life story in a structured way. A particularly useful approach is to consider your life as organised into the eight stages or life goals, first identified by Professor Erik Erikson, the eminent developmental psychologist. These are:

  • developing trust (early childhood)
  • autonomy and initiative (late childhood)
  • competence and achievement (early adolescence)
  • identity and belonging(adolescence)
  • intimacy with others (early adulthood)
  • guiding and helping others (older adulthood) and
  • self-acceptance (old age)
  • Erikson believed that each of these stages needs to be completed, before moving on to the next. Some people may not have achieved one or more of these goals over the course of their lifetimes and the Life Review process offers an opportunity to rethink experiences in a way that can help them achieve these goals through understanding and acceptance of the past.

    Life review can take many forms: memoir or autobiography; spoken, written or electronically recorded. It can be undertaken on your own or in the company of others. There has been a growing movement recently to encourage older people to act out their stories in the context of theatre. If you have the talent you might try to write about your life in a poem or song. Some of my wife's most treasured memorabilia of her father are the poems he wrote while working as a gold miner in Canada during the depression in the 1930's. They capture the loneliness and longing for home that he was experiencing at that time.

    You do not have to be a celebrity to want to tell your life story. Reflecting on your life can help you to explain, integrate and reconcile everything that has happened in the course of your lifetime. You may want to go even further back and carry out some genealogical research to create your family tree. Of course, it may not even be your own story but someone else that you believe should be encouraged to talk about their life.

    Carrying out a life review can become a major project! Just getting the dates right can take a lot of work. You may want to collate old photographs to jog your memory and which may well lead you in unexpected directions down memory lane. This is when keeping a diary can be really useful. It is a good idea to sketch out the outline of what you want to cover before you begin, as you will almost certainly find ideas keep coming to you.

    This summer I plan to revisit the town where I was born to make a video record of the places I remember from my childhood. What began as an interesting idea has rapidly expanded to take on a life of it's own. The street were I was born, my old school, the grassy park where I used to climb trees and the local river which was an adventure playground before such things were ever invented. I will have to wait for a sunny day because, in my mind, that is how I remember them. I don't know if the finished result will be of any interest to my children or grandchildren but it will mean a lot to me.

    A variety of life review and family history training manuals have been developed to guide older people on their journey. Reminiscence and Life Story: The Importance of Remembering One's Life Story by retired Professor Faith Gibson, is both practical and scholarly. The Handbook of Structured Life Review by Barbara Haight is also an excellent step-by-step introduction to the process for anyone who would like to know more.

    Guest contributor - Michael McSorley

    In May Michael was out and about as a volunteer marshall with the Giro d'Italia, an annual stage bicycle race primarily held in Italy, while also occasionally passing through nearby countries. This year the opening races were held in Northern Ireland. For three whole days everything was coloured pink, including a field full of sheep that lined the route!

    The Giro d'Italia started in Belfast with over a thousand volunteers recruited to help marshal the event's 3 stages in Ulster and Leinster before its return from Dublin to the south of Italy. Michael's story is not just about professional sport, but about a big event that brought the best out of local people, whose welcoming attitude made the role of volunteers relatively easy.

    To read Michael's article, please click here


    The internet provides a whole new communication medium for those with the urge to write about their life in retirement. I am aware of no less than fifteen on-line magazines aimed specifically at the retired population. Some of them are of high quality while others contain little more than thinly disguised advertisements. Along side these publications there has recently been a growth in personal blogs (web logs). The best one of these that I have come across is Postworksavvy, written by Jeanette Lewis, a retired Chief Executive Officer with a number of children's service organisations. Jeanette lives in Toronto and writes in an engaging and readable style about her life there since she retired.

    In Postworksavvy, Jeanette describes her lifestyle, personal growth, ageing, and use of time during what she calls "that wonderful third phase of life when career worries end". Readers contemplating their own retirement are offered inspirational, smart and creative tips for ageing successfully, achieving optimal wellness and living a full life without work. Jeanette deals with the successes, struggles and life changes of ageing, Her blog reflects on what she has learnt and how she use these lessons to keep growing.

    I am delighted that Jeanette has agreed to join our team as a contributor to Exploring Retirement, starting in July. I am very tempted to rename the magazine Exploring Retirement - International! Who knows where this journey will lead?