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Finding Meaning in a Shrinking World

written by Kathryn Britton 12 August 2010

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Getting Older

Getting Older

This week, I’m visiting an 87-year-old friend who lives in an excellent supported living facility. We have been sharing communal meals with other residents. Yesterday we visited with a woman who was brought to the table in a wheel chair and told us she is 97 years old. Like many others around the table, she ate slowly and laboriously. She struggled to cut her sliced peaches into bite-size pieces.

During meals, the room seems full of staff. Nurses circulate with medications. Student nurses chat with people and help them eat. Attendants bring juice and coffee without even being asked, tie on bibs, move walkers out of the way, take orders from the pink printed menus on every table, and joke with the residents. The room buzzes with activity.

For the Staff: A Shared and Valued Purpose

After breakfast, I talked to Linda, the nurse who seems to have the closest eye on my friend. I was about to attend the 6th Biennial Conference on Personal Meaning, and asked what she thought motivated the staff.

She agreed that the staff has a shared sense of valued purpose. During the day there are hundreds of things they do to contribute to the quality of life of the residents, helping them dress, bathe safely, move around, get to activities, and making sure they eat and take their medications. The workplace culture is tolerant and friendly, even in response to unrealistic complaints and demands. They understand how frustrating it is for their residents, who spent a lifetime taking care of themselves, to rely on and wait for others to help them with the simplest of tasks. This morning I witnessed an exchange between a 92-year-old resident and the attendant who was bringing her juice that ended with the resident saying, “You know I love you,” and the attendant saying “That’s why I like working here.”

Linda and the staff have a clear sense of meaning. What about the residents?

For the Residents: How to find Meaning in a Shrinking World

My friend has had a long and busy life. When she retired at 65, she took on several volunteer jobs working for the symphony, the library, an environmental concern, a museum. She was selected to serve on the Public Disclosure Commission. She went on 24 trips outside the United States — none of them to Europe. She shopped for herself, cooked for herself, managed her own apartment, and went out for walks twice a day. Now, 22 years later, she no longer has the energy to volunteer. She can’t walk very far, and she relies on elevators because of her walker. She can no longer manage purchasing and preparing food. She reads newspaper and magazine articles instead of books. Her world is shrinking.

I can tell from talking to my friend that it is harder to feel a strong sense that life has meaning when you can no longer do things for yourself and others.

She frequently says that there is no point in her being alive.

Being served

Being served

Tips for Finding Meaning

These questions were on my mind throughout the Meaning Conference. What gives meaning to life when someone feels they are no longer able to serve others or contribute to lifetime passions or a larger purpose?

Here are some ideas from the Meaning Conference that I will share with my friend:

  • Other people find meaning in life by serving you, so your needs enhance their lives.
  • Younger people — your children, grandchildren, others who serve you – also learn by watching you. If you accept your shrinking world cheerfully, you may be making it easier for them to do so when their time comes.
  • There is a time in life for doing and giving, and another time for receiving. Without someone to receive, nobody can give.
  • Think about what would not have been if you had not existed. The existence of those things gives witness to your existence.
  • Meaning doesn’t have to come from what you do. Meaning can come from the way you are. The time for doing is past. The time for being is now. One speaker, Z. Bellin, studied how people express meaning, and whether it is more dependent on doing or being. He said our understanding of meaning tends to be over-focused on accomplishment. There are many ways to experience meaning — by coping with difficulties and through interactions with others. Meaningful experiences remind us of our aliveness in relation to the world.

Alexander Batthyany, from the University of Vienna, was a keynote speaker. He said, “Up to the last moment we can choose what will be our harvest and what will remain of us.” He suggests we ask not only “Am I getting what I want? Am I feeling good?” but shift toward asking “Am I taking part in existence?” He stated that each of us is irreplaceable and unique. What really counts for psychological and existential well-being is having something to live for, which requires being open and flexible to the ever-changing meaning of the moment.

Now to find out which of these ideas will resonate with my friend …

Author’s note: Later this month, I will post a summary of the 6th Biennial Meaning Conference and other things I learned there.

All of these points come from presentations and discussions at the 6th Biennial Meaning Conference that took place in Vancouver Canada on August 5-8.

Dr. Alexander Batthyany is inspired by his work at the Victor Frankl Institute in Vienna. Dr. Paul Wong gave a workshop about short-term meaning therapy, where this topic came under discussion. Right now I don’t have the details for Z. Bellin’s dissertation on experiencing meaning through being as well as doing, but I will add it later.

Sweet old kiss (Getting older) courtesy of Jonel Hanopol
Being served courtesy of Josh Ward

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Amanda Horne 13 August 2010 - 7:11 am

Kathryn, I look forward to what you learn at the conference. I particularly liked the comment “Am I taking part in existence?” and would take it a step further. Am I contributing fully and to this existence, am I making a difference for another’s existence.


Jeremy McCarthy 13 August 2010 - 9:09 am

Poetic and thought provoking.

Kathryn Britton 13 August 2010 - 11:14 am

Thank you for the flower, Jeremy!

Yan 13 August 2010 - 6:01 pm

Dear Kathryn

Thanks for posing such a brave question! My faith lies in the mystery of life itself beyond expanding or shrinking human worlds. My 7-year old son has been asking me lately “what happens when I die?” I never came up with a satisfactory answer for him but instead wrote a blog for myself and him when he grows older:


It seems to me that we humans are easily trapped by our perceptions of what’s around us and/or tempted to make premature and often mechanical claims about the eternal mystery based on our existing knowledge, wether through science or religion. As a scientist (no longer professionally but in spirit), I love theory making and believes in its value. But we should not confuse theories with the fundamental humility of our existence. Real meaning derives from our encounters with the unknown, in old age as well as young. My father died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 84. I’ve told my wife that I don’t want to be kept alive if/when I lost consciousness of life. My role model is Albert Einstein: he was working on the illusive unified theory the night he died. We are born with curiosity, why not die with it? From this perspective, one of objectives of one’s active life ought to develop the capacity and skills of cultivating curiosity at both ends of the rainbow. It’s a more effective strategy of dealing with physical decline than merely stacking cash away. For example, we have observed through science how the universe seems to evolves through transformations as well as expansions. Who knows what lies beyond the rainbow of each individual souls? I am willing to accept the humility that I would not know the “final” answer before I die. By the token, I am content to melt away with that “happy” thought …

Warm Regards,


Kathryn Britton 13 August 2010 - 6:18 pm

When I first read your comment, I thought “not so much” because people find it difficult to see meaning in their lives exactly because they feel they are no longer making contributions. However, being able to make a difference to others goes on long past being able to do things. I see that all around me here in the supported living facility. So great point.


Kathryn Britton 13 August 2010 - 6:31 pm

Your comment made me think of a story I heard recently about a woman who always judged people based on the intelligence they exhibited. Now at the end of her life, her own quick wit is slipping. She is forced to either find herself wanting or change her criteria for judging people.

I think it would be wonderful to be working on one’s personal unified theory up until the end. But if that isn’t possible, what then? You don’t have an on/off switch for your wife to push if you “lose consciousness of life.”

Curiosity is a wonderful recipe for facing something new, however difficult. I hope I have it until the end.


Yan 13 August 2010 - 8:06 pm

Hi Kathryn

Why do you have to judge other people for everything? When it comes to fundamental meaning of life, what matters most for me is between the unknown and myself. By no means I meant to exclude the value of community, neighbors and friends. Yes, my wife does not have the button but certainly the compassion for my dignity and choice as a human being. You are quite right that none of us could predict with certainty what happens when we actually get there. It is all more improtant to prepare ourselves for all scenarios. What I offered was simply one of them. Thank you for tackling such a difficult subject with integrity and feeling.

Warm Regards,


Kathryn Britton 14 August 2010 - 11:04 am

I was just observing that the ways we do judge others — whether intentionally or not — may end up imprisoning our own selves as we age.

Having the discussions with family about the choices we want made for us — when we can no longer make them ourselves — is very important. So your wife will know your wishes and what compassion means to you. It’s not the same for everybody.

Thank you for taking this conversation further!


Yan 14 August 2010 - 6:26 pm

Hi Kathryn

Thank you so much for the clarification. I agree with you completely that we couldn’t help making judgements simply by living out our decisions and choices everyday. There is almost a political correctness nowadays not to make judgment on any behavior, tradition and culture in social and organizational settings. The trouble is that not making judgement is a judgment in itself and has serious consequences! Acknowledging that we do make judgments is the first step toward learning and improving ourselves as individuals and collectives. The question you so barvely posed is decidedly at a different level of complexity compared to most decisions we make day to day. As Albert Einstein said, we cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking that created it in the first place. If life is a rainbow, we humans can hardly imagine, let alone comprehend the next one. I applaude all the compassion and remedies that you so caringly describe and encourage – they do help, to a degree. I was simply saying that humility and faith in the unknow rainbow might also be part of the equation for our human predicament.

Warm Regards,


Kathryn Britton 15 August 2010 - 11:29 am

I think we are violently agreeing with each other.

For my friend, your rainbow analogy would probably sound too religious. She has been personally opposed to religious explanations for most of her adult life.

Last comment you mentioned curiosity, this one humility. I’ve been rather awed by the value of humility — Becoming Unselved: The Mystery of Humility. You make me wonder what other character strengths can contribute to challenges of getting older.


Kim Everett 16 August 2010 - 11:54 am

Your conversation above involves talk of a rainbow…I was just wondering what you believe about a rainbow…

Fact or belief or theory?

A rainbow:

-is God’s promise never to again destroy all life through a flood. His way of locking something in our memory-speed teaching enables speed learning, (Wilkinson, 1992).

-can be seen when the sun, the eye, and the center of the earth are in a straight line. This immense, curved spectrum of light appears only when both the elements of sunshine and rainfall present (all light & water).

-is simply the colors that make up the sun’s white light.

-is a symbol of renewed hope; something lucky to look upon.

-a bridge between the living and the dead.

God, His Son-Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are gentlemen. God expresses himself by an announcement for man such as the rainbow, but it is our choice to believe whether He exists. However, believed or not, Jesus will come and the ability to choose what to believe in will end too.

Peace and contentment to all!

Thomas 24 August 2010 - 9:13 am

It is no secret that “Service is the most powerful catalyst for personal transformation on the planet.” Research is now supporting the benefits of “Reversing the Flow” of attention and energy away from ourselves and doing for others. Of course, this has been known anecdotally in most cultures and countries for centuries.

Kirstine Vergara 24 August 2010 - 2:10 pm

My mom and dad sometimes feel like they can’t do anything anymore because of their age. It makes me sad that they feel that way, because I know that their mere presence is already something. My dad would always reminisce his early days with a look in his eyes like everything’s impossible now. So what I do is find ways where they can do something that would make them feel like they’re worthless. Best example of that is letting mom and dad look after my 2-year-old son I run errands. The fact that I trust them with my son is already something. I see it in their eyes that ‘meaning’ they thought they’ve lost forever. 🙂
Allow me to share with you an article I find very interesting on Knowing What You’re Really Worth. Hope this will help give meaning to life 🙂

Kathryn Britton 24 August 2010 - 7:21 pm

I keep thinking about this question, about what gives us meaning and worth in our own eyes. It is challenging always, but particularly if we are comparing ourselves to ourselves in the past when we were more active and more involved. Relationships seem key. As your son grows, perhaps he will be interested in his grandparent’s stories, as my daughter is in my mother’s. Perhaps they will have a formative influence on him, as my grandparents did for me.

Thanks for sharing the article. It reminds me of Robert Wright’s book, Nonzero — Summary here.

Dr. Judy Krings 31 August 2010 - 2:11 am

HI, Kathryn,
These posts are tremendously enlightening for me re: the myriad ways older folks face and cope, accept, struggle, appreciate, rationalize, and hopefully positively reminisce about their lives. Hopefully the most meaningful, passionately purposeful experiences. My Mom will be 92 in a few days, and the last several years she has been through an extremely painful gamut of inpatient facilities and now Assisted Living. She always has a smile, never complains, takes joy in looking at her gigantic world map with pushpins in all the countries of the world she visited mostly with my husband and me. We talk about the fun times. I fly home once every 4-5 weeks, have coach can travel. One thing I know is Mom has dignity and humility. Service? One shoe does not fit all. She was a “poor farm girl” who saved every cent. Her “service” was the kind of person she was. Quiet,unassuming, and caring. A fantastic role model of do the right thing, work hard, be optimistic, never judge others, and keep trying. Look for the good. Aging, like anything else, is uniquely creative. I also know I wasn’t prepared for a long goodbye. Watching Mom’s focus get narrower has reminded to keep expanding my own world until I cannot. Thank God and the universe for spirituality to see me and all of us, through this complex time. Love connections are so important. Even a smile can light up someone’s life for an invaluable appreciated moment. Little gestures of kindness ripple.

Elaine O'Brien 31 August 2010 - 7:56 am

dear Kathryn,
Thanks for a beautiful article and for generating an important and provocative discussion about living and meaning, especially at the end of the rainbow. Can’t wait to read more…Elaine

Daniel Jordan 31 August 2010 - 11:07 am

I have never thought of people in retirement as experiencing a “shrinking world” but, then again, I am 44 so maybe I haven’t given it much thought yet. Perhaps the more the ‘physical’ world shrinks (living family members and friends, work responsibilities, mobility, etc.) the more the ‘spiritual’ world must expand!

Kathryn Britton 31 August 2010 - 3:12 pm

I don’t think retirement per se means a shrinking world. In fact, many people find it a time of expansion when they can follow their own interests, travel to new places, and volunteer their time in ways that were completely inaccessible to them in the height of their careers. A new kind of generosity is often possible as well. It’s later — when physical energy declines, movement becomes uncertain, senses decline (not just eyesight and hearing, but also taste and smelling). Old answers no longer work. New challenges!


Kathryn Britton 31 August 2010 - 3:20 pm

Thank you, Judy. I’m collecting heroes for when I need to deal with some of these challenges, so I love hearing about your mother. Somehow your comments reminded me of an article my uncle wrote about growing up during the depression — I reproduced some of it in Gratitude from Growing up in the Depression Years.

Kathryn Britton 31 August 2010 - 3:22 pm

I thought about you when I went to chair exercise classes with my friend. I noticed an article in the NY Times about exercise classes for older people this morning. You brilliant people, to know just what kinds of moves people can do to preserve strength and flexibility.

Rob Archer 1 September 2010 - 5:18 pm

“Other people find meaning in life by serving you, so your needs enhance their lives”.

Brilliant. Is it difficult to encourage people to think in this way, in your experience?

Kathryn Britton 1 September 2010 - 8:15 pm

Good question, Rob. I wish I could remember the name of the lady who gave me that idea. She said she uses it often with her clients. Is it her personality or the explanation that works for them? I don’t know. But I thought it was worth trying.


Holly 22 September 2010 - 12:51 pm

Hey Kathryn,

First of all your article took me back to a video I watched about the elderly in my family sociology class. And how they keep growing older and ageing but not dying, and some of them reacted kinda like your friend, by asking “what is there meaning in life now that they have to depend on others, and some of them said they were waiting for death to happen.” I wish I could remember the title but I cant. I cant wait for someone to ask something like that to me, because I am definitely going to give them one of your tips on meaning.
Thank you for your story,


Sharon 26 September 2010 - 1:55 pm

Hi Kathryn,
I am currently a student in a positive psychology class. In our textbook (Peterson’s, A PRIMER IN POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY) the author speaks of the powerful effects that the in-class exercises had on the satisfaction and well-being of the students. I know from my own experience thus far in this class that the assignments have had a profound positive effect. Therefore, would a positive psychology workshop be beneficial in a setting such as a nursing home? The You at Your Best Story, Savoring, and Gratitude Letter exercises, etc., may increase the well-being of elderly students just as it does traditional students. Just wanted to get your ideas on this. Thank you!

Kathryn Britton 30 September 2010 - 3:26 pm

I think it could make very good sense, as long as the people facilitating the workshop are sensitive to the needs of the people involved. So, for example, when I visit my friend, we go to “chair exercise” classes led by physical trainers. These are young, very fit people who still have a good sense of what older people can do — and what they need to do to keep their fingers, elbows, shoulders, knees, arms, legs, feet, neck as strong and limber as possible. They are also very good at encouraging people who aren’t able to do everything … or even very much of anything.

You might find an article by Elaine O’Brien interesting: Joyful Blessing Days: Intergenerational Gratitude Exercises. Elaine practices fitness and positive psychology exercises with people of all ages.


Kathryn Britton 30 September 2010 - 7:18 pm

Let us know if you remember the name of the movie. Thanks for your comment. I hope you do find the suggestions useful.


Renee' 3 October 2010 - 7:57 pm

I absolutely loved this article! I was told by my professor in my Positive Psychology class that I needed to choose and article to read. I chose yours for two reasons: First, the title captured my interest immediately as I find myself sometimes struggling with “finding meaning” in this world. The day to day news headlines alone will make you ask yourself if you are fighting a losing battle in trying to do good, be fair, and make people happy somewhere along the way.

Secondly, I chose your article because I am taking care of my grandmother who is 74 years old but on most days acts like she is 100. She has lost the “fight and spunk” that she once had and surprisingly enough, those are the things I admired about her. So now I am not only left with trying to give her “meaning” and a reason to live, I am also left with trying to deal with losing the woman that I admired my whole life.

I have printed your article off and after I jot you this note, I will be taking it into my grandmother’s room for her to read (she does like to read). I am hoping that I won’t have to say much…as I feel like you have made great points already! Thank you for that!


Renee' 3 October 2010 - 8:00 pm


P.S. Did you get any comments from your friend in regards to the tips?


Kathryn Britton 18 October 2010 - 12:30 pm


Your comment about the news made me laugh, reminding me of Aren Cohen’s article, Laugh it Off, where she talks about why she gets her news from Comedy Central.

I did talk to my friend about the ideas. It was a bit of an uphill struggle, since she has invested a lot of energy into thinking about why her life should be over and done with. I keep remembering, however, that people often think about what they’ve heard and sometimes ideas may bear fruit much later — when I am not around. She has seemed a little more cheerful and easier to talk to since we had the conversation.

I’d love to hear about your conversation with your grandmother — what worked, what didn’t, even if nothing did.

I started to answer your comment several days ago, but I guess I didn’t hit the submit button. Sorry for the delay.


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