Finding Meaning in Ageing – Rev Prof Elizabeth MacKinlay

Ageing: what is longer life for?

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from Luke’s Journal 2020 | Ageing Gracefully | Vol.25 No.3

Aged woman sitting on a park bench in Autumn

Those of us living in twenty-first century Western countries for the most part, even in the time of COVID-19 pandemic, experience the gift of longer life. Yet, if we search the biblical record, we find that generally over the centuries, average life expectancy was much lower than it is now (MacKinlay & Cameron 2019). In terms of longevity, we have more years for living; but are these added years to be blessing or burden? The gift of added years of life raises questions of its own; what are these added years for? How are we to live these added years? Can we still find meaning in older age, in the midst of increasing disabilities, frailty, and/or dementia? 

“The gift of added years of life raises questions of its own; what are these added years for?”

The answers to our questions depend at least to some extent on how we view life – do we see older age as burden? Do we expect to live our later years in the same ways our parents and grandparents did? Or, do we see these years as God’s gift to us and perhaps as a bonus, where we may continue to grow spiritually, walking in God’s love, having reason to live life to the full? As we were promised in Romans 8:19, we are co-creators with God; there must be meaning to be found in this revelation from God. However, it is only as we come to more deeply know our place in the whole of God’s creation that we can begin to connect with the wondrous story of which we are a part. 

This relationship with God and our understanding of it goes to the depth of our being; it is tied with our identity in Christ and lies at the very essence of meaning. Paul wrote: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). However in a cautionary note, Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I fed you on milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready.” (1 Corinthians 3:2). Our growth in faith as Christians needs to come to maturity and this growth towards maturity may take a lifetime; coming to see meaning in our lives is a crucial component of this developing maturity.

The search for meaning

How do we find meaning in life? Some people would argue that meaning cannot be personal: ‘It’s something out there.’ Still others search for meaning and find life to be meaningless. At least some of those who take their own lives do so because they struggle to find meaning and fail. The very narrative that they have used as a framework for life has failed them, yet personal narrative or story remains important for the life journey. The Christian Scriptures tell God’s story through the millennia, and it is His story that is the vehicle carrying meaning for each of us. Each of us has a unique story that we may become more conscious of at particular times of our lives. In fact, it could be said that we do not just have a story, we are story (Kenyon, Clark & De Vries 2001). From the beginning, the Abrahamic faiths have affirmed story as the basis of faith and life, thus linking God’s story with human story. Lash (1986, p120) wrote of the story of our own faiths, linked through the autobiographical nature of Christian and Jewish faith narrative. 

Our story becomes the vehicle for knowing our identity in Christ. Our story, if it is authentic, is the conveyor of meaning and is deeply connected to meaning in our lives. However, meaning is not only personal. For Christians our stories are also connected to our families, our faith community, and ultimately to God. Meaning lies at the very core of our being, and as Christians, meaning is encapsulated in our growing into Christ, as we increasingly come to see with God’s eyes, rather than solely through human eyes. 

There is a tendency to become more deeply concerned with life meaning as we grow older. In fact, Robert Butler (1995) wrote of the importance of reminiscence and review in later life: 

As one’s life nears an end, the opportunity to confront lifetime conflicts and acts of omission and commission, which warrant guilt as well as opportunities for atonement, resolution, and reconciliation, is precious because this is the last opportunity one had.’ (p.xxi)

Our story and God’s story

When we search the Bible, we find that God has spread out so much of what He wants us to know in story. However, too often in recent years, story has been trivialised; it has become a popular activity in residential aged care to record each person’s story. Once that is done, the task has been completed, set in stone. But what is important about story is not just the facts, dates, and places that are remembered, but the meaning of these to the person; this has often been neglected. It is through meaning that the Holy Spirit connects with each of us, and how we are drawn into God’s story. But how do we learn to connect with that story, the story that is both yours and mine, the story that informs our identity as living human beings and children of God?

“How do we learn to see and respond to God’s story and our stories as God would want?”

How do we learn to see and respond to God’s story and our stories as God would want? In a very real sense, story is closely tied to our identity; it goes to the very core of who we are as human beings. All of us are conscious of having a story, in some way or another, even when we are children. However, it is in later life that the significance of who we are becomes more important to us, as we begin to seek answers to the important questions of life. As we grow older, we are able to revisit events of our earlier life, to review and sometimes to revise the way that we saw these events at the time they were experienced (MacKinlay 2017). This review of life, perhaps through the process of spiritual reminiscence (MacKinlay 2018; MacKinlay & Trevitt 2015, 2010), may bring us, for the first time, to intentionally search for and realise the meaning of our lives. Viktor Frankl (2006) wrote that during our lives, we assign provisional meaning to situations as we experience them, but it is only as we become more aware of our mortality that we may become aware of a call from within to search for final life meaning. So, understood in this way, there is a distinct difference from what is sometimes called ‘meaning-making’ to merely searching for meaning. 

Searching for meaning is not an activity or pastime, it is a deeply personal life journey. For Christians, this is our answer to the question of, ‘Why am I here?’ and, ‘What has been and is God’s purpose for me in life?’ Various situations can raise the importance of this final search for meaning. Perhaps it is the diagnosis of a terminal condition, or the loss through death of a loved life partner; perhaps it is increasing disability, or admission to residential aged care. Yet it is only as we acknowledge our vulnerability and our need of interdependence, rather than autonomy and independence, that we may at last discover our own transformation and the joy of living in God’s love. Life is not just about material things, as Paul clearly articulated in 2 Corinthians: “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). In all situations we may search for and pray to find meaning and God’s purpose in our lives. 

A model of spiritual tasks and process of ageing

As we live longer it is relevant to ask whether there are changes in spirituality in these later years. Does ageing stimulate changes in meaning or the way it is perceived, or is simply more of the same? Often, we graduate young people out of the churches, with the expectation that as children, they have learnt all there is to being a Christian, and adults simply need to continue to live their lives with what they learned as children. But there are two possibilities that make this belief difficult. One is that often these days, children have not had the benefit of learning and committing to a faith; at least some of these, as adults in later life, come to search for faith, but lack the deposit of learning of faith that would provide the basis for spiritual growth.

The second possibility is that even growing up in a Christian community, we still have not learnt all we need to learn about living and being as Christians by the time we reach adulthood. More recent (secular) scholarship sees learning as a life-long pursuit. And shouldn’t this be the same for adult and ageing Christians? In fact, it seems that there are possibilities through decremental experiences of the ageing human body that may stimulate the person to ask the very questions that God wants us to ask, whether we have a faith or not. 

There are fundamental questions that come to most people, in mid- or later life, or earlier, if confronted by life crises. Importantly, ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Where do I find meaning in my life?’ Clements (1990) wrote that potential crises of meaning may occur for young and old people which may result in some cases in conversion. Neugarten (1968) noted the change in perception of time in older people – a change from time since birth to time left to live. It was with these questions that I began a journey of discovery in the 1990s, to explore with older people where they found meaning in life. This exploration culminated in doctoral studies and the development of a model of spiritual tasks and process of ageing (MacKinlay 1998). 

It is this model that I wish to write about now. 

In my initial studies, being aware of the proportions of the Australian population holding a religious faith and those with no faith affiliation, I chose to include people of faith and with no religious faith in this study. This approach resulted in the construction of an initial generic model of the spiritual tasks and process of ageing and was followed by the construction of a model of spiritual tasks and process of ageing for those with a Christian faith.
(See Figure 1)

This study sought to find whether there were specific developmental changes in a spirituality of later life. It was a mixed methods study using a survey of spiritual wellbeing in later life, and in-depth interviews of independent living older people. Factor analysis compared the survey and in-depth interview findings (MacKinlay 1998, 2017). 

The interviews produced rich data on where participants found meaning. This data corresponded with Frankl’s perspective which found a progression from provisional meanings as people encounter situations through life, assigning meaning, but only later in life being able to see final meaning in their lives. Meaning was seen in two ways: provisional meaning, which in a sense was associated with their life process at the time of the event, and final or ultimate meaning being assigned, if at all, near the end of life. The model developed in this study (MacKinlay 1998) identified six main themes from the data – the first four are four continuums between self-sufficiency to vulnerability; provisional meaning and process of moving toward final meaning; relationship to isolation; hope to despair or fear; then response to meaning and final or ultimate meaning. 

Meaning is found through relationship, with others and/or God; through creation/creativity, natural and human made; through the arts, including art, music, poetry, drama and dance; and religion through liturgy, religious services, symbols and rituals that carry meaning for the people and sacred texts (MacKinlay 2017). 

These ways of connecting and conveying meaning remain important for frail older people. A recent study of the lived experience of frailty (MacKinlay, Mordike & Burns 2020) was valuable in finding how the frail participants were able to negotiate physical decrements and find meaning at this time in their lives. It was at this point that their very frailty brought opportunities for some, in terms of their self-awareness of increasing vulnerability, to be able to self-transcend their difficulties. Finding meaning and inner strength are ways towards self-transcendence. A number of these frail older people spoke of their inner strength, based on their certainty of God being present through the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Conclusion

At no time in life does meaning cease to exist, although it may be hard to find meaning in some situations. Finding meaning in life remains crucial for many in later life and is often accentuated as people become more acutely aware of the nearness of end of life. 

But, returning to a question I asked at the beginning of this article, can one still find meaning in dementia, when memory is failing, or recall dysfunction may exist? Helping people who have dementia to connect with meaning is one of the most important things we can do in support of these people, even as cognitive function declines. While cognitive abilities may continue to be lost, the search for meaning and sense of meaning at the very core of our being remains, and it is through the spiritual level of connecting with meaning that life can remain worth living for these people. This deep level of connection beyond language is profound and connects with the spiritual and ultimately, with God. Finding meaning in the final life career remains an important factor for many people (MacKinlay 2006, 2017), for meaning is closely connected with hope, peace and joy.


 
 Rev Prof Elizabeth MacKinlay AM, FACN, PhD 
Elizabeth is both a registered nurse and a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia. She was the inaugural Director of the Centre for Ageing and Pastoral Studies at St Mark’s National Theological Centre, Canberra 2001 to 2012. She is an Adjunct Research Professor, Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre, Charles Sturt University and Director, CAPS (Colloquium for Aging Perspectives and Spirituality) Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, CSU.  


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Resources:

  • Butler, R. N. (1995) Forward. In B. Haight and J. Webster. (eds) The art and science of reminiscing. Washington: Taylor & Francis.
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