Sharing wisdom and building community: The Ethical Will Project

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


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

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.

  • The goals and techniques for interviewing. This portion includes ideas for where and when to interview residents and tips on how to use nonverbal communication. Volunteers need to understand the significance of nonverbal cues; should they act shocked or surprised at an answer, they might skew the remaining responses. The job of the interviewer is to record information, not to judge it.

  • Tips for taking notes. Although most volunteers are already well prepared to take notes based on their secondary school education, it never hurts to suggest a few strat- egies for accurately and efficiently recording an interview. Also, stu- dents who opt to use a recording device should make sure that resi- dents are comfortable with its use.

  • What to do after the interviews. Those who record the interview by hand should review their notes with the resident to ensure accuracy. We also recommend that volunteers type each portion of the interview on the same day as the interview to maintain a high degree of accuracy. To ensure that no work is lost, we ask volunteers to e-mail us copies of the work in progress.

  • Experiential learning. More important than any information we directly convey to volunteers during the training session is the hands-on experience that they get from interviewing one another. We pair up the volunteers and have them transcribe the ethical will of another trainee. In this way the students are comfortable with the ethical will questions and interview techniques when they meet with a resident. Moreover, the interviews that volunteers conduct with one another provide a second pool of ethical wills that we can compare with those of the residents.

Once you have built the group of highly motivated, well-trained volunteers, administering the program becomes fairly straightforward. Pair each student with at least one resident (some students may request to transcribe more than one ethical will) and stay in touch with each pair to ensure that both partners feel comfortable and are having an enjoyable experience.

We recommend pairing people based on sex (male volunteers with male residents, etc.) simply to minimize the risk of discomfort or problems. We also advise the volunteers to visit the residence before the first interview, so that both parties can determine a convenient and comfortable place to meet and record the ethical will. This goes along with our general philosophy that, as long as the volunteers are mature and responsible, the fewer constraints the better. A flexible program makes it easier and more pleasant for the volunteers to conduct the interviews. Needless to say, having students continue with the project would be a huge boon.

After the volunteers have sent in the ethical wills of the residents, the editing process begins. The key is focusing on clarity, not content, as the ethical wills should remain as true to their original version as possible. It may even be useful to verify the changes with the residents themselves to avoid inaccuracies. After all the ethical wills are edited, the facility can print them with a nice binding and host a small reception for the volunteers, the residents, and their families and close friends. The residents thereby have the chance to present their ethical wills to their children, spouses, or friends, while the volunteers can be publicly recognized for their hard work.

The Project’s Effects

Although this initiative seems simple, the benefits of the Ethical Will Project are truly remarkable. Its direct goal is to aid the transmission of wisdom from seniors to others who may benefit from it. But since the program is undertaken at a senior residence, it also helps to build a community, train volunteers, get accurate feedback about the residence, and even contribute to the fields of gerontology and sociology.

In terms of fostering a community, this is an excellent way to involve youths in the lives of seniors. Ethical will questions cut through platitudes and allow residents to form meaningful friendships with the volunteers who interviewed them. As one retired college professor remarked to us, “No one has ever asked such meaningful questions about my life.” We are very pleased that many volunteers met with their senior counterparts even after the interview process was finished and hope that the learning and teaching continue. Additionally, the reception at the end of the Ethical Will Project is an incredible opportunity to involve residents’ families. The families are gratified to receive the wisdom of their elderly relatives and also recognize all that the senior residence does apart from its basic functions. We hope to bring many of these family members into the residence community as volunteers, donors, or frequent visitors.

With the numerous ethical wills that we hope to have transcribed in the years to come, the Ethical Will Project will be a gold mine of data on the aged

The Ethical Will Project can further promote community if used in the training of volunteers. Transcribing the ethical will of a senior helps volunteers to empathize with the residents, as they directly learn about the seniors’ thoughts, fears, ideas, and hopes. Similarly, because of the depth of questions, seniors gain greater respect and appreciation for the oft-youthful volunteers. As a result, the Volunteer Department at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities is working to incorporate the recording of at least one ethical will into the training protocol for many of its student volunteers. Our hope is that, with more than 1,000 unpaid assistants on-site each year, the Ethical Will Project can improve the experience of the residents while making the job of the young volunteers who assist them easier and more meaningful.

Moreover, with the numerous ethical wills that we hope to have transcribed in the years to come, the Ethical Will Project will be a gold mine of data on the aged. It can be used as a source of information for senior facilities. Ethical wills may even be the most honest instrument for self-review in a senior residence. In our initial study, residents often commented on the aspects of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities that they greatly appreciated, as well as some of the areas that they wanted more support in.

Equally captivating is the prospect of using ethical wills as a tool for sociological research to garner the advice and wisdom of generations. For example, we plan to compare the responses from the volunteers (who wrote ethical wills as a part of their training) with those of the senior residents. We could also examine the ethical wills, answer by answer, of individuals from different demographic groups. For example, do people with lower levels of education value learning as much as those with PhDs?

We plan to publish our initial findings from the Ethical Will Project over the coming months. Most likely, it will take years of running the Ethical Will Project to get a full sense of the values and beliefs of residents at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities. A more comprehensive initiative involving a number of senior facilities will be necessary to draw broader conclusions. Fortunately, the Ethical Will Project can be easily duplicated in residences across the country. With a great deal of cooperation, it may be possible to collect the age-old wisdom that is difficult to harness but abounds in our field of aging services.

Joshua Stanton is a junior at Amherst College majoring in history, economics, and Spanish. Hedy Peyser, LCSW, is Director of Volunteers at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities. They have greatly enjoyed working together as co-Directors of the Ethical Will Project and hope to continue their partnership for a long time to come

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  1. Trezpacz SA. Ethical Wills: Writing Your Chapter of the Family History. Family Giving News, Vol 5. October 2005. Available at:


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