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Why Older People Should Take Up the Search for Meaning

Exploring aging as a spiritual pilgrimage

Looking at aging as a spiritual journey opens a window to positives — to thinking in a new way about wisdom, joy and wonder throughout the lifespan.

Last October, the Sixth International Conference on Aging and Spirituality  took place in Los Angeles. Its host, Nancy Gordon, holds a Master’s of Divinity degree and is the Director of California Lutheran Homes Center for Spirituality and Aging. She’s spent her career focusing on healthy aging.

Here, she answers questions (posed in an e-mail) about the conference’s main theme on pilgrimage and aging, drawing particularly from conference presenter Elizabeth MacKinlay’s ideas on the search for meaning.

Next Avenue: Why do you say the search for meaning is more prominent for people as they grow older? How do you know?

Nancy Gordon: We live in a culture where people are valued by what they produce and how well they think. Often, our primary identity is characterized by what we do. Upon no longer being identified by a job title, older adults often have a hard time recognizing the meaning of their lives.

This is amplified by not being productive in the ways our culture values. This leads older adults to questions such as, “Why am I still here?” Chaplains in long-term care homes often hear these questions. That is often followed with, “I can’t do anything anymore, so what difference does it make that I’m still living?” This is a deep, existential question that is at its heart a spiritual question.

Please explain what “noological space” means and how it allows us to find meaning in life.

Being and staying connected to others, to the world, to God, and to activities of significance are all part of the spiritual tasks of aging.

— Nancy Gordon

Much of the work around meaning in older adulthood is based on Viktor Frankl’s reflections on his experiences in a Nazi camp during WWII, which was most thoroughly explored in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl posited that life’s meaning was found in the space of our existence that lies outside the physical and psychological, the space he called “noological space” and which he defined as “that dimension in which uniquely human phenomena are located.” In our present cultural framework, it’s the space that enables us to find meaning, even in the midst of the losses of possessions and health that sometimes characterize the aging process.

What are the spiritual tasks of aging?

Being and staying connected to others, to the world, to God, and to activities of significance are all part of the spiritual tasks of aging. MacKinlay posits that these are mediated through significant intimate relationships (including a relationship with God), through relation to creation, through participation in the arts, and through formal religion.

As outlined by MacKinlay, the tasks are to transcend loss and disabilities, to find intimacy with God and/or others, to find final meanings, and to find hope. She sees humor, both as a way and a product of finding transcendence and also believes that a guided life review process can promote a sense of final meaning and hope in those who are aging.

 How do we find our life’s meaning at this age?

Frankl argued that we find meaning through doing deeds, having significant relationships with others, beauty and nature, and, ultimately, by choosing our attitudes. Based on his experience in the camps, he found that those who survived did so because they chose to respond to their dire and seemingly hopeless circumstances with attitudes of hope and care and kindness.

The challenge for older adults is to continue to find ways of doing deeds (even if they’re small), to stay engaged in loving and nourishing relationships and connections, and to choose how they respond to the inevitable losses and trials of aging.

What are the benefits of figuring out what our meaning and purpose is through spirituality? Are these physical and mental health benefits?

There have been many studies over the years that have shown that aging people of faith who are connected to communities of faith do show mental and physical benefits when compared to others. MacKinlay cites an Australian study that shows how spirituality promotes mental and physical health and lowers anxiety about aging. She also notes the study found that baby boomers who are not necessarily affiliated with religious organizations do have high levels of spirituality.

Please make your best case for why older people should take up the search for meaning.

Frankl quotes Nietzsche who said, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” It is in our search for meaning that we find the “why” to our lives, and when we have found it, we can live through and even thrive in the midst of great loss and difficulty. The meaning of each person’s life is unique to him or her. The answers that one person finds will not be the answers that satisfy another.

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