The importance of meaning for people as they age

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Based on over twenty years of empirical research in many countries, the Map of Meaning offers a practical framework for a meaningful life and doing meaningful work. [Source: Shutterstock]

Ageing is a privilege but it can also signify a time when things change, including what matters most and what gives you meaning. 

For older people, they’ve watched friends and loved ones die, they no longer work and are grappling with their minds and bodies not functioning like they used to. These instances can lead older people to lose sight of what matters most to them and lose purpose in life which compounds feelings of isolation and depression. 

What can often be dismissed as complaining or whinging – phrases like “I don’t see why I get out of bed in the morning” and “I don’t know why I bother” – is usually a sign someone is experiencing an absence of meaning.

It is important to keep this in mind if you care for older people as you could be the only person they interact consistently. There are tools you can use to help reinstate a sense of meaning in an older person’s life, and one of those is the Map of Meaning. 

The Map of Meaning helps us make sense of what we experience as meaningful and why and shows us the way to create more meaning for ourselves.

Restoring meaning

Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Map of Meaning International, Lani Morris – an older woman who lives in an Australian retirement community – knows this is a hard conversation for carers, as clients often experience an absence of meaning. 

“What we’re dealing with for older people is so enormous,” she said at her talks at the Aged & Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA) National Conference last week. 

“Sometimes, what gave our lives meaning can drop away by dying in bed overnight and you have to face, obviously grief, but also a complete loss of meaning.”

For carers, giving meaning back to clients can start with:

  • Listen
  • Asking what’s important to them
  • Helping to create an action plan

But how do you create an action plan? Here’s where the Map of Meaning comes in. The Map helps you reflect on your own or your organisation’s programs and ask:

  • What are the programs offered? 
  • What opportunities do they give clients to connect and feel like they belong?
  • Are these programs meeting their needs or do they need to be altered or changed?
  • How can I better support them? 

You could obtain the answers to these questions by sending out a questionnaire to your clients for feedback. 

The dimensions of the Map of Meaning

People experience more meaning over time if they are helped to meet their needs across the different dimensions of the Map.

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The Map of Meaning. [Source: Map of Meaning International]

The creators of the Map found two tensions relating to meaning: one between being and doing, and one between self and others. These tensions can lead to too much focus on any one of the featured Map pathways creating a loss of balance which, in turn, can create a loss of meaning.

Unity with others

People get meaning from quality relationships with others which offers shared values and working together. 

“That does not mean pushing a whole lot of old people together in front of the television and calling that community,” said Ms Morris. 

“I, personally, would never want to belong to that. I do not necessarily have shared values with those people and I’m not necessarily working together with them. It’s just a convenient way to say ‘they’re all happy, they’re together.’”

As a carer or Lifestyle Coordinator, what are the opportunities and types of environments you’re working with to figure out who might like whom, and who needs to connect with others?

Service to others

Every human being gets meaning from making a difference through acts of service. For many of us, we are constantly looking for ways to help out others – and that desire doesn’t stop when we’re older.

But this can be harder for those living in a facility as there are not always many opportunities to make a difference. 

This is where intergenerational programs can be hugely beneficial to clients. Partnering with a local school or kindergarten allows older people to pass on stories and wisdom to younger generations to provide the service of helping them navigate life. 

Expressing our full potential

Older people sometimes must cope with the reality that they can’t do what they maybe once did effortlessly. Living a life where we aren’t expressing our full potential can result in a lack of meaning as we aren’t using and sharing our unique talents and passions with the world.

“I’ve got a wonderful neighbour called Aurora who was a ballroom dancer and she made her own dresses and she pulls out these dresses that are just gobsmacking works of art, but she can’t sew any longer,” said Ms Morris. 

“What could she learn to do that’s new so she could build a talent again?”

It could be as simple as helping clients pick up a new craft during a lifestyle session, tending to a stellar veggie patch or baking a batch of biscuits they were most famous for. 

You can play a key role in clients maintaining confidence and doing what fulfils them to the best of their abilities. 

Integrity with self

We need to retain our integrity because being true to who we are is our sense of self. This also encapsulates our moral, psychological and spiritual growth which is important for older people to maintain.

Ms Morris explained that care organisations often want clients to “merge” together and the outliers, or individualistic types, are seen as “difficult”. 

Allowing clients to remain individuals and continue to grow in healthy directions is part of ageing well. Accessing religious or spiritual practice and remaining autonomous in their lives and care are not only their rights as clients but essential for their health and well-being. 

Inspiration

What lifts your heart and gets you out of bed in the morning? It may be many things, but for older people – particularly those living in a retirement community or aged care facility – it is easy to become unmotivated.

“I’m a really well-resourced woman, but sometimes I stay in bed until 10 and I don’t always feel good,” she said.

“We have lived, in my case, coming up for 80 years, a rich, passionate and intense life and I care about what the hell is going on in the world. I don’t want to be cozied up in a nice warm place and spoken down to. I want to be involved in how I can save the planet.”

Ms Morris spoke about an initiative she helped start with other residents of her retirement village to improve their waste management systems. Now, all bottle tops are recycled, there are better markings on the bins and 25 households put their scraps into compost.

While it may seem like a minor difference, this project helped maintain and restore a sense of meaning for Ms Morris and her fellow residents.

Being in reality

Meaning is only meaningful when we are actually in reality – when we’re dealing with what’s real. Unfortunately, for a lot of older people, their reality can include a lot of pain, a disconnect from family living elsewhere, dwindling finances and declining health. 

For carers, you are in a position to help remind clients of the positives in their realities and refocus them to try and see the good in their lives. This is not always an easy task, but you may be the only form of consistency in their lives that can help slowly bring some positivity back into their lives.

For more information, visit the Map of Meaning International website here. For a specific guide for service providers on how to implement the Map of Meaning in aged care, you can purchase a copy of The Map of Meaning and Ageing: a handbook for service providers via the Meaningful Ageing Australia website here

Does the Map of Meaning sound like a helpful resource? Let us know down below in the comments

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  1. Being in reality
    Meaning is only meaningful when we are actually in reality – when we’re dealing with what’s real. Unfortunately, for a lot of older people, their reality can include a lot of pain, a disconnect from family living elsewhere, dwindling finances and declining health.

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