Maintaining a sense of meaning and purpose in the light of the inevitable changes that come with ageing is critical to living and ageing well. People can experience the loss not only of friends and family but also of employment, status, and even identity. Valuing the changes that come with ageing, and being valued by others, can be challenging in a society that does not seem to place much value on the later stages of life, so addressing problematic stereotypes and prejudices associated with the ageing process is critical for enabling more older people to find meaning and purpose in their later life.
Having a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives was clearly important to the older people involved with the museum experiments which they found in diverse ways. Examples included being active in their community, being politically active, caring for the environment, advocating for the needs of older people, and responding to wider, global issues.
Elsie Keymer, who took part in The Whitaker’s experiment, was very committed to caring for the environment and spoke passionately about her concern for the planet’s future. Often, it is children and young people who are seen as the ones who should be concerned for the environment, so hearing Elsie’s passion and commitment reveals that people in the later stages of life can be just as political and active as the younger generations. Elsie’s passion was born out of a real love for nature, although she (like many participants) found it hard to put into words just how important the natural world was to her, Nature means everything really… I’m just fanatical about it! Once I get started you can’t stop me.
Other participants were taking action to help the environment in small, everyday ways. Barbara Brindle, participant in Bolton Libraries and Museums’ experiment, has been picking up litter in her local park for many years, inspiring neighbours and young people to do the same. Teresa Graham, participant in National Museum Liverpool’s experiment, talked about how taking part in Encountering the Unexpected inspired her to start thinking about how she could use her garden differently, including using a bird box to house some bees!
There may be the assumption that older people become more introspective as they pass through the later stages of life but we did not find that with participants in Encountering the Unexpected. They were concerned with political and societal issues, and some were still active in local politics. Particularly in Manchester, individuals such as Tommy Walsh and Don Berry (participants in Manchester Museum’s experiment) were involved in their communities as Culture Champions through the Age Friendly Manchester initiative. Don presents a radio show for older people on All FM and Tommy, who is a member of the Labour Party and a Trade Unionist, campaigns for greater social justice for older people.