Life Review

As a hospice social worker, much of my focus during my visits with patients is on their physical symptoms. Of course this is necessary to ensure their comfort, but I find it is just as important to sit and listen to their stories. Everyone has a story to tell, and life review is something we can all do with our loved ones.

When I visited Elinor last week, I found her still in bed, sipping her morning tea. She had immigrated to the USA in the 1950s from Germany, when she was in her 20s. I asked her questions about her early years in NYC, and she just lit up. Elinor talked about her apartment on the upper West side, how exciting life was in her new country, and the hard times she had endured in Nazi Germany. One story led to the next as she shared how she met her husband and their eventual move to the West coast. The more Elinor talked the more animated she became. At the end of the visit she thanked me saying, “How nice it would be to meet you on Broadway and go to Zabar’s for coffee and babka.”

Life review can be initiated by looking at photos or asking simple questions like, “What was your favorite game to play as a child?” or “Who was your best friend in high school?” Life review helps people find meaning in their lives as well as helping to resolve old hurts. I had a patient recently who was estranged from his children for many years and put all the blame on himself. As he talked about the history of their relationships and his attempts to reconcile, he began to see that it wasn’t completely his fault, and the process of self-forgiveness began.

Recording histories can be a very meaningful experience for the patient as well. I have a patient who is 101 and has some remarkable stories about her family’s immigration from Russia in the late 1880s. She’s currently working with a hospice volunteer to make a DVD of her telling stories as a gift for her granddaughter. She has been so excited about the project that, for a while, she completely forgot about her physical ailments and was like a giggly young girl deciding what she should wear for the camera.