Self and Meaning in the Lives of Older People - Book Review

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.

About the Book: Self and Meaning in the Lives of Older People is a book based off of a longitudinal study lasting decades researching our sense of self, meaning, and how these changes as we age. The work revolves around 40 subjects in the Southampton, UK region, documenting how their lives changed, and how they adapted to these changes throughout their 70s, 80s, 90s, and in some cases into their 100s. The authors of the book and study include Dr. Peter G. Coleman, Dr. Christine Ivani-Chalian, and Maureen Robinson. In their words, Our initial target was to study older persons' perceptions of self and meaning in relation to the changing events of their lives until their deaths by means of regular interview and observation.

Naturally, as we age, we lose various things that we held dear—our job, our spouse, and sometimes our extended family and friends. Often, there is an inflection point where suddenly our world comes crashing down. It is apparent from the study that individuals often struggle with the loss of control, the inability to care for oneself, and having to reach out for help to others. It is usually during this time that individuals have to find ways to cope and have to find new things to live for.

As Paul Thagard would reason in his book The Brain and the Meaning of Life, People’s lives have meaning to the extent that love, work, and play provide coherent and valuable goals that they can strive for and at least partially accomplish, yielding brain-based emotional consciousness of satisfaction and happiness. Yet, what happens when one is alone in the world, one can no longer work, and one can perhaps no longer play? Can lives still be meaningful, have a purpose, and a reason to push biological clocks to the limit? Or if there is nothing left to live for, why not just legalize euthanasia?

What became apparent midway through the book, is that what most older people in the study found to be the most meaningful in their lives included family, health, work, and love (e.g. that of a spouse's). This was actually quite surprising, as out of all the books, tv shows, movies, etc. that have been reviewed on this website, family was rarely a major focal point to meaning, except in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. Perhaps it has appear elsewhere and it was just overlooked in endev42's earlier research. Good health was also not mentioned much either in books, movies, or tv shows that have been reviewed here. Whatever the case may be, it also became apparent that in many instances, faith helped play a role in many of the participants of the study to overcome grief.

As most know, life and love are not perfect, and one partner often passes away before the other. This also came up in the study, with most women outliving the men. This was a result of two reasons. The first being that women, in general, have longer lifespans than men, and two, men tended to marry younger women. Thus, each had to deal with loss different ways. Furthermore, for men, the loss of work often resulted in a disconnection between the self and meaning; whereas women referred more to the loss of relationships and family ties. Those that survived the longest, and had family ties, often found elderly roles as beings family advisors; which they often felt gave continue purpose for living.

At the end of the book, the researchers note, With retirement from work and disengagement from other formal roles, the meaning of daily life has to be discovered from inside rather than imposed from the outside. This in and of itself is quite a profound statement that is echoed throughout various movies e.g. About Schmidt, but never really stated so succinctly.

Conclusion: It should be noted that the meaning of life, does not match what people noted here as meaning in life. Granted the meaning "of" life is different from meaning "in" life, the two, one would believe, are still interconnected. From the data gathered so far by the endev42 project and the research conducted, it was not expected to find family at the top of meanings in life list. It could be that the dataset of this study, of only 40 individual is skewed, or perhaps the results biased. Then again, it also makes sense. From an evolutionary and biological standpoint, if we can look back at the end of our lives and be proud of the family we created, our genes would be proud... and hence we too get some satisfaction out of it.

We rate the book the following:

Overall - 5

Meaning of Life Relevance - 6

Uniqueness – 7

Here it should be noted, that despite this being a phenomenal scientific study, our overall score is based on various factors which include the books entertainment value. So although it is a great piece of work and a lot was learned from reading it, it isn't particularly the most enthralling work ever written; albeit, it is a valuable one.

If you read the book, what did you think? Comment on our post below. If you like the site, help support us by purchasing the book on Amazon.