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Meaning-making in later life in a care setting

27 June 2023

What is the process of meaning-making of older people receiving some form of care? And what could you possibly do to support this process? "Influencing meaning in later life is mainly through relationships," says spiritual caregiver and researcher Claudy Weijers. "It also does not usually consist of concrete solutions. You can already achieve a lot by changing your attitude and care vision, providing the right preconditions and promoting a certain expertise." On 27 June, Claudy Weijers will defend her PhD thesis De oogst van het geleefde leven: Zingeving op latere leeftijd in een zorgomgeving (The harvest of life lived: Meaning-making in later life in a care setting) at the University of Humanistic Studies.

Claudy Weijers conducted research on the process of meaning-making in people in later life receiving some form of elderly care (long-term care, rehabilitation or home care). She combined literature research with extensive empirical research. She interviewed not only the clients themselves, but also their relatives and care providers. She approached the process of fulfilling meaning from three angles that play an important role in fulfilling meaning in later life: value (re)orientation (what did one consider important in life?), experiencing both strength and vulnerability, and dealing with life stories.

For example, she saw that clients do not experience new values as they get older, but become increasingly aware of what they have always considered important. They use this stronger awareness to hold their own in the here and now in the face of the challenges that come with ageing. Mentioned values are about both 'everyday' and 'transcendent' values. The latter values are usually embedded in a philosophy of life.

Existential vulnerability

Clients also experience growth through setbacks in life. It is precisely relating to vulnerability that can give people a sense of strength and meaning. This is then not so much about what one can or cannot still do, but about the meaning of this for who one is, about existential vulnerability. Furthermore, respondents think that in our society, we mainly associate ageing with vulnerability and see it as something negative. This perception has a negative impact on clients. Yet it does not prevent them from experiencing their lives as meaningful.

Being occupied with life stories is an important source of meaning for all clients. For them, it is important that they can do this in consultation with their social environment: they need to experience sufficient interest and want to share their experiences with relatives and caregivers, although they do not always indicate this. Moreover, the life story is almost always a joint story, it is interwoven with that of others, which means that meaning is also created jointly.


Based on the findings, Weijers comes up with a number of recommendations: "It turns out that philosophy of life is often considered private. As a result, its importance for clients' sense of purpose is not very visible and the care environment is not always geared to it either. It helps if clients and staff become aware of the significance of philosophy of life for experiencing meaning." She argues for a focus on staff expertise around dealing with philosophy of life, philosophy of life facilities and actively offering care (rather than just demand-oriented work).

Weijers continues: "Clients experience existential vulnerability in contact with their social environment. It is therefore important to pay attention to establishing or maintaining the connection with clients' social environment, and the attitude of carers. Here, intervision in the team can also help." As for life stories, clients often lack interested audiences: they experience that they are far from always able to tell their stories to their social environment, and this discourages them from telling. It can help if caregivers pay attention to this.

Finally, she says: "The influence of meaning in later life is mainly through relationships. That can impact in many ways. So it's important to look at that carefully. It usually doesn't consist of concrete solutions either. You can already achieve a lot by changing your attitude, ensuring the right preconditions and adapting your care vision accordingly. And a certain expertise can add value. I am thinking of developing awareness of what is essential for clients, and responding appropriately. Expertise promotion can involve both improving the work of carers (general expertise) and complementing what they can offer, through spiritual carers and psychologists (specific expertise)."

Claudy Weijers is a spiritual caregiver at elderly care organisation Axioncontinu. She also conducted PhD research at the University of Humanistic Studies in recent years.


From 27 December 2023, the thesis will be available for free download via our Pure Research Portal.

What is the process of meaning-making of older people receiving some form of care? And what could you possibly do to support this process? On 27 June, Claudy Weijers defends her PhD thesis at the University of Humanistic Studies.