Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Making a Meaning-Full Life at Montefiore

Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Making a Meaning-Full Life at Montefiore

Article excerpt

A sta rting point

Moving into residential aged care1 is rarely part of a person's hopes and dreams about old age. Often it is an unexpected and undesired move necessitated by various age-related health issues. It was at the Sir Moses Montefiore Jewish Home in Hunters Hill, Sydney, that Dafna Stern, a social worker, started thinking about how residents in an aged care facility could live in a way that was consistent with their hopes and dreams. The catalyst for her thoughts was a remark by Bertha2, a resident of the nursing home, who said she was contemplating how to make a meaningful life for herself.

At the same time, Caroline Serrure - a nurse and psychologist from Belgium who had recently come to Australia and was working as a casual nurse at the Montefiore facility - was considering the same issue. Caroline's interactions with the elderly motivated her to consider gathering ideas on how to make one's life meaningful in old age. She hoped to learn from the experiences of the residents themselves and to help them learn from one another.

Thus Dafna and Caroline embarked on this project together, happy to be exploring an idea that intrigued both. As Barbara Myerhoff (1979) remarked, 'many life phases are particularly hazardous these days, adolescence and childhood certainly. Old age is even more trying and far fewer individuals are up to its special tasks and challenges' (p. 217). On the basis of stories Dafna and Caroline had heard from the residents of the Montefiore Home, they knew that there were people who were up to the task.

Hoping to make a collective docu ment

Dafna's and Caroline's intention was to consult these 'experts' at living in an aged-care facility on how their experiences, skills and knowledges had shaped their lives in the lead-up to their transition to communal living, and whether these knowledges continued to sustain them afterwards. The intention was that the residents' stories would be put into the format of a booklet that would become available to newcomers. As David Newman (2008) has pointed out, 'it can be useful to introduce such documents to others who are experiencing similar themes or concerns' (p. 30). Thus Dafna and Caroline informed the residents of the plan to put their thoughts into a collective document that would be available to help others in a similar situation. It was hoped that, while contributing to the development of this booklet, the residents would have the opportunity to get a clearer picture of their own skills.

Who m to invite

After considering who to include in the project, the facilitators (Dafna and Caroline) initially decided only to invite the more cognitively alert residents as they would be the ones most likely to benefit from the exchanges with other residents. One resident, Moss, however, felt that it would be worthwhile for him to have his wife, Rachel, present during the conversations, even though she experiences memory loss. Rachel spoke in such an expressive way that her contribution enriched the conversations. For instance, she offered, 'small talk, like the talk you have when you are sitting at a bus stop, can help you make contact with other people who live here'. It was fortunate that Moss had included Rachel.

Though unplanned, Rachel's contributions helped the facilitators overcome their wariness of including people with memory loss in these kinds of conversations. In future ventures, people with dementia will be included. Although their short-term memories may be weak, their long-term memories may still be strong.

Getting sta rted

Dafna's and Caroline's assumption was that people do make meaning of their lives no matter what age they are and in whatever environment they live, even if they don't always recognise that they are doing this. The intention was to assist the residents to start to think and become curious about the ways in which they create meaningful lives. Even though some of the residents began their conversations by stating that they did not have anything of interest to contribute, they soon realised that they did. …

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