By James W. Ellor
Finding meaning can be a challenge for anyone at any passage of life, but particularly for older adults as they reach the end of life and have more time for reflection. Just as people are unique in how they find meaning, so are the different generations. Previous generations found that just to reach old age was a challenge, but newer generations are discovering that they have the luxury of time and choices in how to be active in retirement. The challenge for baby boomers as they age is to find a way to foster their search for meaning.
Victor Frankl, in his book Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967), says the search for meaning begins with the belief that meaning can be found. Frankl field-tested his understanding of meaning in the Holocaust, where despair was common, and he clearly understood the importance of this first step. The second step is to grasp one’s own transcendence. Transcendence can be found in relationships between people or between someone and God. Either way, God is understood.
Finally, meaning is also found through reflecting on the patterns of one’s life—patterns that show give-and-take with the greater world. While Frankl was a psychiatrist, he understood a clear role for religion in the process of finding meaning (The Doctor and the Soul; New York: Vintage Books, 1955).
In a 2011 study that I did with McFadden and presented at the American Society on Aging’s Aging in America Conference, we found that baby boomers expect to be able to pursue the meaningful aspects of their lives into their retirement. They will continue to volunteer, they will continue to seek leisure activities much like the current generation of older adults, but they, like the generations ahead of them, will also continue to find their faith and faith traditions meaningful.
One difference between the Greatest Generation and the baby boomers is that the Greatest Generation was far more religion-oriented, whereas baby boomers are more oriented toward personal spirituality. Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, in their recent book Four Gods (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), discuss perceptions of God. Based on the Baylor Longitudinal Study of Religion, they note that more than 85 percent of people in the United States believe in God, in some form. Yet they also point out that only about 30 percent of those attend a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. Multiple studies published by Cutler in the Journal on Gerontology (32:4, 1977) have suggested that older adults are significantly more likely to attend religious services than are younger people.
Religion and spirituality have been a part of gerontological literature since the early 1900s. Prior to 1990 in the United States, most of the discussion revolved around religion, but since 1990, the idea of spirituality has taken over, both in the literature and for baby boomers as a group. In our study, we found that few baby boomers referred to themselves as simply religious, rather, they more often professed to be a combination of religious and spiritual or just spiritual. The implication being that for baby boomers, discovering meaning is going to be a more personal quest.
We can support older adults in finding meaning through religion or the spiritual sector through “spiritual formation,” or the continual process of conforming one’s thinking and behavior to one’s internalized belief system and worldview; of growing in harmony with one’s inner self; and one’s sense of meaning and purpose (Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging, 22: 1-2, 2009). While spiritual formation is a relatively new concept in seminary study, it is a useful in supporting the development of meaning, and for elders it often centers around the important act of reminiscence, or life review.
Frankl and others have pointed out that meaning is not something that one can obtain and harbor. Rather, it requires active interaction with people and with that which is greater than we are. In the past, social service agencies would work with churches, synagogues, temples and mosques to collaborate on meaningful activities with older adults. The challenge for baby boomers will be to be able to mature this aspect of the whole person while doing so in interactions with individuals, not just congregations. Baby boomers reflect a spiritual diversity not evident in previous generations, and will pursue individual searches for meaning in retirement. They will continue to find faith and most see God as important, but in order to support this sort of search for meaning in retirement, we will need to be prepared to work with the individual and his or her interpretation of meaning.
The Rev. James W. Ellor, Ph.D., D. Min., L.C.S.W., D.C.S.W., is a professor of social work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and a member of ASA’s FORSA Leadership Council. For more on baby boomers and spirituality see Ellor and Kimble’s “The Heritage of Religion and Spirituality in the Field of Gerontology: Don Clingan, Tom Cook and the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging” in the Journal of Religious Gerontology (16:1/2 and 17:1/2, 2004).
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the November/December 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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