Understanding Spiritual Meaning Making with Older Adults

By Thomas, Cecilia L. PhD, Lmsw; Cohen, Harriet L. PhD, Lcsw | Journal of Theory Construction and Testing, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Understanding Spiritual Meaning Making with Older Adults


Thomas, Cecilia L. PhD, Lmsw, Cohen, Harriet L. PhD, Lcsw, Journal of Theory Construction and Testing


Abstract:

This article presents results of a study of twenty four African American and Jewish older adults who share personal narratives in which they reflected on memories of spiritually significant, critical life events. Their life stories about spiritual turning points illustrate how older adults adapt, learn and grow from the events in their lives. Narrative gerontology approach provides a framework for these ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse older adults to give life meaning. Meaning making for older adults may involve attributing an old meaning to a new situation or reinterpreting an old experience from a new understanding. Findings reveal that spiritual meaning making for older adults involves four dimensions: personal, interpersonal, sociocultural and structural. This study contributes to the growing research literature on older adult development and adds deep understanding of spiritual meaning making as a part of an ongoing process of spiritual development.

Key Words: Meaning making, transformative learning, narrative gerontology, spiritual turning points, Jewish, African American

Adults report that meaning is important to them (Bee & Bjorklund, 2000). Meaning is defined as "an organization of experience which enables us to identify those events which matter to us, relate them to previous experiences, and determine how we should respond to them" (Marris, 1991, p. 78). Meaning is one of the five central existential needs of human beings (Fromm, 1949), a common characteristic of all human beings (Fowler, 1981), and a central human motive (Frankl, 1984). Perceptions of the meaning in life for older adults have been found positively related to enhanced acceptance of one's life (Hughes & Peake, 2002).

The purpose of this study was to examine the nature of meaning making with older adults. To that end, the following questions were posed to older adults in two focus groups: What critical turning points have you had in your life? At the time they occurred, did they draw you closer to God or create a distance from God? As you reflect on those events today, what lessons did you learn and how did they influence your life?

Review of Literature

Meaning Making and Transformative Learning

Much of the literature on meaning making in adulthood comes from the education field. Mezirow (1991), the architect of transformative learning, defines adult learning as meaning making. He explains, "learning is understood as the process of using a prior interpretation of the meaning of one's experience in order to guide future action" (Mezirow, 1996, p. 162). Transformative learning is about how adults make meaning of their lives.

Transformative learning theory explains "how we learn to negotiate and act upon our own purposes, values, feelings and meanings rather than those we have uncritically assimilated from others - to gain greater control over ourselves as socially responsible, clear thinking decision makers" (Mezirow, 2000, p. 8). The central mechanism of transformative learning, meaning making is concerned with the act of making sense of an experience and interpreting it (Courtenay, Merriam, & Reeves, 1998). Meaning making is about growth and change and is based on the experience of the learner; however, "because we are engaged in a day by day process of self invention - not discovery, what we search for does not exist until we find it - both the past and the future are raw material, shaped and reshaped by each individual" (Bateson, 1990, p. 28).

People go through a process of deconstructing and reconstructing their frame of reference, based on different learning styles, which help predict patterns of how and why they make meaning of their experiences (Cranton, 1996; Cranton, 2000). It is important to note that meaning making can be incremental or transformative. Meaning making extant in everyday living attributes an old meaning to a new experience, so the learning comes not from the experience but on the meaning that we attach to it (Bee & Bjorklund, 2000). …

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