Aging and the Search for Meaning

The Search for Meaning

What Gives Meaning To Life

What do older people themselves say about what gives meaning to their lives? When a sample of participants at a senior center was asked that question, nearly 90 percent of respondents described their lives as meaningful (Burbank, 1992). For most of them (57 percent) the meaning came from human relationships, an answer followed by service to others (12 percent), religion, and leisure activities. Another study revealed that the most damaging threat to well-being in later life is loss of life purpose and boredom, not fear of absolute destitution or poor health. Responses show that people find purpose or meaning in a variety of ways: work, leisure, grand parenting, and intimate adult relationships. Respondents reported that unless they were sick or depressed, they didn't feel old (Thompson, 1993).

From this empirical research we can identify two important ideas about how older people find meaning in their lives. First, being old (by chronological age) is not the same thing as feeling old. Unless people are sick or depressed they are unlikely to feel old. Instead they will experience themselves as the same person they were years before. Florida Scott-Maxwell wrote precisely this in her journal when she observed that even though she may look "drab outside," still inside she has the same strong feelings that make her the person she always was.

The second point is that older people will find meaning in many different ways-some from continued activity, others from a need to be needed, and still others from religion and beliefs that help them cope with suffering, accept themselves, and be reconciled to the world around them. Self-acceptance at any age is not easy, and in later life it may involve struggling with difficult questions. You can never avoid or escape from such questions about meaning because they greatly impact how seniors make decisions. By understanding the recurrent-indeed, nearly universal-developmental tasks of later life, you will be in the best possible position to be a good listener, to listen attentively, which is where professional training and understanding of aging are crucial.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.