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Sharing wisdom and building community: The Ethical Will Project

February 1, 2007
by JOSHUA STANTON and HEDY PEYSER, LCSW
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As famed philosopher Immanuel Kant once wrote, “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” But while science can be researched in a laboratory, wisdom seems far more elusive and difficult to acquire. Fortunately for professionals in the field of aging services, wisdom is often close at hand. It lies in the hearts and minds of our very clientele. The difficulty is not so much in finding the source of wisdom but in gathering it from the seniors with whom we work. A recent program at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville, Maryland, known as the Ethical Will Project, appears quite promising as a method of gathering the wis-dom of elders while simultaneously training volunteers and building a stronger sense of community at senior residences.

The Ethical Will

The first clear record of an ethical will dates to more than 3,000 years ago. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob, on the eve of his death, explains what he hopes for each of his 12 sons.1 Far more recently, and particularly since the advent of the computer, this ancient Jewish tradition has lost its religious association and has been expanded from an oral message of guidance to a written document detailing the values, expectations, hopes, dreams, and fears of an individual. In its written form, an ethical will can be treasured for generations and help its readers lead better, more fulfilling lives. It is like a love letter to one's family and can provide a vivid and detailed legacy
It is like a love letter to one's family and can provide a vivid and detailed legacy

It is like a love letter to one's family and can provide a vivid and detailed legacy


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Despite the obvious benefits and uses of ethical wills, they are seldom written in facilities for the aged because of the difficulty that many residents face, physically and mentally, in writing them. The Ethical Will Project sought to surmount these obstacles and encourage residents of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities to write ethical wills. We believe that the program can be replicated at almost any senior residence, nationwide, with a team of only five or ten volunteers and a budget as low as $200.

The first step in designing an ethical will transcription program is figuring out which questions to ask residents. Although the Ethical Will Project included 22 questions, 10 to 15 should be sufficient. We recommend the following categories:

  • Values and education

  • Spiritual beliefs

  • Words of wisdom to pass on

  • Life's experiences

  • Life's lessons

  • Regrets and gratitude

  • Decisions

  • Change and the future

We also suggest collecting some information about the socioeconomic background of the interviewees, as these data may shed light on the responses. The easiest way to collect the information is to create a questionnaire for the residents that records age, country of origin, race, native language, level of education, etc. These demographic questions also serve as an ideal prelude to the other ethical will questions, which are often more rigorous and emotionally demanding to answer.
The next step is to find residents who have the capacity to accurately recount events from their lives and who have the social skills to work well with volunteers

The next step is to find residents who have the capacity to accurately recount events from their lives and who have the social skills to work well with volunteers


After writing the list of ethical will questions and the demographic questionnaire, the next step is finding a group of residents who have the capacity to accurately recount events from their lives and who have the social skills to work well with volunteers. It is important to have residents sign informed consent agreements, which explain what an ethical will is, detail how it will be recorded, and ensure confidentiality beyond the resident's family and the project's volunteers.

The next, and possibly most crucial step, is to select a group of volunteers based on their social skills and writing abilities. We found that a small group of 10 to 15 bright student volunteers suffices for the first round of interviews; a larger group might be unwieldy and difficult to coordinate.

Recording, Preparing, and Presenting Ethical Wills

After selecting the student volunteers, we asked them to sign informed consent agreements in which they promised to keep the residents’ interviews and ethical wills confidential and agreed to participate in a specialized training program. (If they were under the age of 18, their parents were asked to sign the form, as well.) After providing regular volunteer training—a set protocol that takes an afternoon to complete—we held a two-hour supplemental session to prepare volunteers to transcribe ethical wills. The additional training focused on:

  • Distinguishing between oral histories and ethical wills. Oral histories are largely a recitation of information and a recollection of events, while ethical wills delve into the lessons that an individual draws from these experiences.

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