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"I conceive of life review as a naturally occurring, universal mental process characterized by the progressive return to consciousness of past experiences, and, particularly, the resurgence of unresolved conflicts; simultaneously, and normally, these revived experiences and conflicts can be surveyed and reintegrated."

Robert N. Butler, PhD (1963)

 



What is Life Review?

 
Life Review (LR) is both a specific and general term, depending on how it is used. As a general term, it refers to the process of looking back to the past in order to inform and/or bring pleasure into the present. Such activities as personal story-telling, oral history, reminiscence, guided autobiography, life history interviewing, and structured life review are all examples of this general process.

LR activities can occur in many ways and in both individual and interpersonal contexts. LR may be intentional or incidental, active or passive, organized or free-flowing, individual or group; and the list goes on. It can involve recall of a single event or group of events up to a full life story, facts of when and how, as well as personal meanings and interpretations. The following definitions (while simplistic) provide a basis for understanding the main forms:

  • Oral History - A retelling of specific events (e.g., WWII, 9/11) so as to leave a record for future generations...
  • Reminiscence - Recalling the past to bring meaning, understanding and/or pleasure into present life or discourse with others...
  • Life Review - Typically an organized, intentional effort to recall one's life story and retell critical events and present interpretations...
  • Guided Autobiography - Typically an organized, intentional effort to recall one's life story and write down critical events and present interpretations...

As a specific term, LR refers to an intentional effort to recall one's personal life story - the full story or at least large portions - with a goal of bringing new understanding and perspective to the present. Those undertaking a full LR effort do so because they recognize that maturation and self-definition are ongoing processes, occurring well into the 7th, 8th, and 9th decades of life. Advancing age brings an opportunity to look back, consider life's ups and downs, and construct a sense of integration (if not acceptance) prior to death. For most, this is not a morbid process, but a hopeful and even joyful one - even for those subject to past difficulty and trauma.

Dr. Barbara Haight, Professor Emeritus at the College of Nursing, Medical University of South Carolina, is probably the most influential author in the LR field right now. She emphasizes a structured form of LR whereby the whole life story from childhood to present age is review in a systematic manner utilizing Erikson's 8 Stages Theory http://www.learningplaceonline.com/stages/organize/Erikson.htm

"The reason for reviewing and looking back at each stage specifically is (to)...reframe and reconcile the memory of a stage that was not successfully completed at the proper time in the past. Through reframing, the Reviewer can make the required adaptation in the present...(and) may complete or reconcile the stage now under discussion and move closer to Integrity."

Haight & Haight (2007) The Handbook of Structured Life Review

Haight frames LR as an interpersonal, therapeutic process, whereby a Reviewer speaks with a Therapeutic Listener (interviewer) in a structured format over a series of 1-2 hour sessions. The process is "therapeutic" in the sense of promoting personal integration (understanding) and emotional well-being, but without being "clinical" in nature. In fact, LR is arguably most powerful and meaningful when pursued for personal enrichment than for clinical/psychotherapeutic reasons.

An important aspect of our LR Course at UMSL is making this distinction for Gerontology students and practitioners from many backgrounds. LR interventions may be pursued by any trained and competent practitioner, and not just those with a clinical license. At the same time, however, standards of professional and ethical practice must still apply.