There aren't any mountains where I live, and sages are in short supply, so I hope that's not how to find the answer to this deep and essential question.
Maybe I'm asking the wrong question.
We are not seeking the meaning of life, but what gives life meaning.
The domain of meaning is the one I have the most difficultly with. What gives life meaning? Like a butterfly, it's hard to catch.
I've thought about what gives meaning to the residents I serve, and it condenses down to two issues.
1. Know What's Important
The domains we've already discussed are foundational.
It's important that you know me. If you don't know (or don't care to know) who I am, I have no more significance than the chair I am sitting in.
It's important that we connect. If you don't share who you are, there is no relationship. I am just another task in your life.
My choices and the opportunity to make them are important. Without choice, how do I express my identity?
It's important that I feel secure in your presence, or I won't share myself or care to connect with you.
It's also important that I know what really matters in life. I am always amazed when I meet people in their 90s who are more concerned about their possessions than the relationships in their life. It's not a given that people learn this, and when they don't, it's incredibly sad.
2. Be Able to Give Back
I hear frequently, "I'm no use any more. I can't______________(fill in the blank) or ___________(more blanks) and I'm not good for anything." Our challenge with the elderly is to turn the focus away from their losses, which they all have, to their gains. What has been added to their lives in their many years of living? What wisdom have they gained? What wonderful stories of their lives can they share? What activities which they enjoyed are still possible in some form?
How can they give to us? Being able to give, rather than always receive, is essential to having meaning in my life.
It was the worst day of my life. For the last three weeks, all I loved and held precious had been threatening to crumble, and on that day, it did. I'd never felt such pain. However, I was at work, and life needs to go on, so I gathered my tattered emotions around me and went forth to do my job. At lunch, I sat beside a retired school principal in her 90s, to assist her with her meal.
People with dementia have an uncanny ability to pick up on what you are feeling without a word being said. I smiled and spoke to her as I always did, and no one else in the room knew that anything was amiss. Normally, when I am helping her, she will put her hand on my arm, sometimes running it up and down. She did this with everyone.
Today was different. She ran her hand down my arm to my hand, and laced her fingers through mine. We sat like that through the whole meal.
Not a word was spoken, but on that day, she gave me an incredible gift.
In our mission to be care partners, we must remember we are just that. Partners, not givers. It is so easy to default to giving and doing for someone who needs a lot of support. If we aren't careful with that, we steal independence, and rob them of meaning.