The meaning of life - in 15 minutes

News: Baroness Neuberger
Baroness Neuberger

Staff fortunate enough to hear Baroness Neuberger talk at Oxleas’ Getting Older – Living Well conference probably expected a polished talk. What they may not have bargained for was an inspirational account of the meaning and purpose of our lives - all delivered in 15 minutes.

Baroness Neuberger has had a distinguished career in public life. She is a noted social commentator and is currently Chief Rabbi of West London Synagogue and a crossbench peer in the House of Lords. She was invited to speak at the conference by Helen Jones, Inpatient and Acute Service Manager, Older People Mental Health, who had heard her speak movingly on the radio about the importance of caring for older people.

Staff from mental health, learning disability and community health services got together at the conference on 28 March at the Boathouse, Danson Park, to consider how integrating these services could provide better care for older people. During the morning speakers explored themes including the relationship between physical and mental health, social isolation, how staff can work together and caring for people at the end of life. In the afternoon, roundtable discussions debated whether integrated care for older people can make a difference and universally decided that improving and maintaining communications between different services was essential.

But the highlight of the day was Baroness Neuberger’s thoughts on the meaning and purpose of life for older people. Not mincing her words, she began by saying that the way our society often treats older people is disgraceful: “Feeling loved and cherished and wanted is a huge part of what makes life worth living. Even when things are not going well, if we feel secure of our place in society we are ok. The problem for older people is that they are often abandoned by society.”

She went on to say that more attention needs to be given by society and health professionals to what older people actually want, as opposed to what we may think they need: “Most older people look forward to a good meal and we shouldn’t tell them what they should eat. In all the theoretical literature on older people, there is nothing about the enjoyment of diet, financial security, physical appearance like clothing and hair, sense of humour, sense of purpose or spirituality. So professionals miss what matters to older people.”

The baroness concluded by summing up what she thought health professionals need to take account of: “We all need a sense of purpose and to feel needed. We need this all of our lives, including when our physical or mental capacity isn’t great. Dementia patients, for example, have been shown to benefit from tasks such as making their own beds. Friendship is also important to us throughout our lives. People with dementia still react when you touch, sing, or talk to them. Our need for human contact lasts to the end of life, even with dementia. Finally, we need to recognise the suffering and loss that older people experience. People are often afraid to talk to them about what they imagine may be painful memories, but this is wrong. Older people want to remember and talk about the past. It’s the memory of people they have loved and lost that consoles and sustains them every day.”

Published on 29th March 2012