and Existential Meaning in Later Life:The Experience of Older
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This research focuses on the quality of life which
is constituted by purposeful and meaningful living, in particular
the meaning people attribute to their personal existence. The
dual loss of role and function which accompanies ageing can lead
to failure of existential meaning. In the past, durable meaning
has been encouraged by the profession of a religious faith and
the supportive influence of a faith community. However, British
society has seen the decline of traditional religious practices
and an increase of diversity of belief in regard to sources of
existential meaning. It is difficult to apply lessons from North
American research which reflects a society where religious influences
remain strong. Yet, to date, there has been little British research
on the subject of spiritual beliefs and ageing.
It is our expectation that this project will enlarge
discussion about quality of later life. Better understanding is
required of the various forms of spiritual and non-spiritual beliefs
influencing existential meaning perceived by the British older
population. Our research takes a broader approach to the identification
of spiritual beliefs and eschews a narrowly religious path.
Aims and Objectives
The principal aim of this study is to investigate
the relationship between spiritual and non-spiritual beliefs with
regard to existential meaning and the long-term well-being of
older people following the bereavement of their spouse.
The study has two principal objectives:
To investigate the associations between
beliefs concerning existential meaning, social support for
these beliefs, quality of life and adjustment to bereavement
in a sample of bereaved spouses.
To examine the influence of internal factors,
key experiences and thought processes mediating the relationship
between belief and well-being in the same sample.
The study has two subsidiary objectives:
To assess the person's needs for particular
forms of counselling, including pastoral care.
To explore the basis for a more substantial
longitudinal study in which to investigate the influence
of beliefs concerning existential meaning on adjustment
to loss in later life.
A series of longitudinal case studies will be carried
out on a total sample of 20 men and 20 women, drawn from lists
of GP practices and Funeral Directors. Each participant will be
interviewed three times, the first shortly after the the first
anniversary of the bereavement, then six months later, and finally
after the second anniversary of the death. Anniversaries are important
times in the re-activation of grief, and the time period from
the first to the second anniversary is a key period in the process
We shall employ validated questionnaires to assess
the character and strength of religious, spiritual and philosophical
beliefs concerning existential meaning, as well as self-esteem,
health and well-being, and adjustment to bereavement. But the
main feature of the data collection will be the description of
significant experiences in the inner and outer lives of participants
since the bereavement. These accounts will be recorded and analysed
using qualitative methods of narrative analysis.
Particular attention will be paid to the dialogues
of questioning and answering in which the person engages, both
in terms of internal thought processes (the dialogical self),
and external conversation with significant others, relating to
the deceased person, his or her meaning for the person's own life,
and the continued purpose and significance of living.
This study will contribute towards the greater integration
of pastoral care within British gerontology and social policy
for older people. Our sense of pastoral care is broad, going beyond
specifically religious concerns to include a more sophisticated
consideration of spiritual beliefs and other sources of existential
meaning. The identification of spiritual needs is now recognised
to be an important part of health and social care assessment,
and we would hope that our research will contribute to the development
of improved training of assessors and the use of more sophisticated
procedures in practice. We intend to disseminate our findings
to various professional and user groups. Although the study focuses
on bereaved spouses, we believe its findings will have application
to the wider field of maintenance of elders' integrity in the
face of loss.