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Relationships and meaning of life in old age

Social inclusion through meaningful ageing

What are the social relationships of older people like? Is age a conditioning factor that complicates the enjoyment of meaningful relationships? Is there purpose in old age? Can we reinvent ourselves and embrace meaningful projects in this vital stage?

In this text we discuss questions that are challenged by a social narrative of old age that does not respond to the reality of the diverse, committed and vital longevity we live with.  

People's talents and potential, as well as the social and meaningful aspects of meaning and the meaning of life, continue to be relevant throughout the life cycle. However, ageist or discriminatory perceptions reduce not only their relevance but also their capacity for development.

The mental and physical well-being of older people is enhanced when their talents are recognised and properly channelled. Even in a state of great frailty close to death, people need to feel recognised for who they are and to feel that their goals, motivations and values are understood. Nurturing the development of these talents is increasingly becoming as necessary as it is neglected.

Well-being is also conditioned by social connections and relationships, which are a fundamental element of human life. Throughout our lives we need to have personal contacts and feel union, closeness and affinity with other people, because as Maruja Torres so aptly pointed out in a recent interview: "Life, if it is not a congregation, if it is not people, it is not worth living" or, at least, it loses part of its meaning.

The main social needs are satisfied with the development of personal relationships that favour the maintenance of our identity and self-esteem, the closest relationships that provide us with affection, with which we establish an attachment, intimacy, that provide us with security and, together with this, that provide us with support.

We also need to feel part of a social group with which we can identify, a social group that we value as valuable and with which we share values and norms. However, as we age, our social needs change. As a result, we tend to be more selective in our choice of social relationships and activities. The increased need for deep connection is set against a time when we are more likely to lose significant others, friendships, partners, etc.

"What would life be if we did not have the courage to try something new?" asked the painter Vincent van Gogh.

Meaningful ageing also refers to the development or maintenance of the capacity to give meaning to life. It encompasses experiences, needs, motivations, cognitions and emotions, which give meaning to our daily lives.

Enjoying this way of ageing helps to cope with difficult times, such as health problems or close losses, but also to maintain a positive outlook on life, with a sense of communion with others, participation in meaningful activities and a feeling of inner strength and harmony.

For this, we need a purpose in our lives, something that connects present events with future ones; values, to guide our actions and to feel that the "right thing" is being done in order to avoid emotions such as guilt or fear; we need feelings of efficacy, of maintaining control over situations and circumstances in your life; and also, a foundation that allows us to feel that we are a valuable person. These needs become more important as age advances and the capacities for the development of these purposes may be altered. To enjoy a sense of meaning at a time when we need it most.

In this sense, it is worth remembering the words of the lawyer and former politician Cristina Almeida, who defends the idea that "every life needs an initiative. Life does not stop just because we get older", or in other words, as sociologist Daniel Prieto says: "the importance of waking up and feeling the need to get out of your pyjamas to enjoy a new day".

The relationship between social needs and needs for meaning is very strong. Valued social relationships are also vital for finding meaning in life, and become more vital as the years go by. At crucial moments in life, also in old age, existential questions and life balance play a fundamental role, which is often elaborated through thought or conversation. Those who have no one to talk to and share their thoughts or memories with may experience a lack of self-worth or worthlessness, leading to feelings of loneliness or a lack of meaning.

There is a reciprocal relationship between close relationships and meaning. Personal and family relationships respond to the need for connection and enhance the sense that life has meaning. At the same time, the belief that life has meaning helps to build new relationships. Responding to needs for meaning - among others, purpose, recognition of personal worth or coherence - enables people to develop better social relationships and increase the satisfaction of their social needs.

Efforts to improve the care of older people and to contribute to the improvement of their living situation should therefore aim at addressing social and meaning needs together, rather than treating them as separate categories.

The main purpose of the SEE ME project has been precisely to develop a training, a toolkit that enables carers to approach these issues and to know how to apply some techniques or activities with people in need of care. Addressing this issue in a particular way will help to improve care and their well-being.

All this will be discussed at the conference "Accompanying from talent and meaning" which will take place next Wednesday at the Junta Municipal de Distrito de Retiro (Madrid). An opportunity to discover a new approach to accompaniment and care through the relational and the meaningful. See you there.

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