Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Construction of Meaning in Old Age: Possibilities and Constraints

  • Freya Dittmann-Kohli (a1)


Historically, ageing processes have often been perceived as growing constraints to a good life, but proposals for a reorganization of positive meanings also date back at least to Roman times. In order to study age-related reorganization of meaning, self-descriptive statements of 300 young and 300 elderly adults were collected with a sentence completion test. A coding scheme was used to identify age-specific meaning patterns.

In contrast to young adults, elderly people completed problem- and future-oriented sentence stems significantly more often by referring to negative aspects of their own ageing process. Nevertheless, their answers to self-referent sentence stems showed that they used significantly more positive and fewer negative or ambivalent statements about self and life. The analysis of the overall patterns of cognitions in both age groups suggested that, within the existential constraints of old age, positive meaning is created by elderly people through various cognitive-affective strategies. For instance, instead of maintaining high expectations for life realization and self-development, the elderly change their standards, becoming more self-accepting and value more highly what is already given and still available. Conclusions are drawn about life-span development and modifiability of meaning.



Hide All
Aylwin, S. 1985. Structure in Thought and Feeling. Methuen, London.
Baltes, P. B. 1987. Theoretical propositions of life-span developmental psychology: on the dynamics between growth and decline. Developmental Psychology, 23 (5), 611–26.
Bengtson, V. L., Reedy, M. N. and Gordon, C. 1985. Aging and self-conceptions: personality processes and social contexts. In Birren, J. E. and Schaie, K. W. (eds) Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, second edition. Van Nostrand, New York.
Berger, P. L. and Luckmann, T. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. Doubleday, New York.
Bromley, D. B. 1977. Personality Description in Ordinary Language. Wiley, London.
Cicero 1965. Cato der Ältere über das Greisenalter. Reclam Universal-Bibliothek, Stuttgart.
Dittmann-Kohli, F. 1987a. Personal meaning systems and life meaning: theoretical facets and a life-span perspective. Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education, Berlin (unpublished manuscript).
Dittmann-Kohli, F. 1987b. Erfolgreiches Altern aus subjektiver Sicht. Paper presented at the Meeting of the German Gerontological Society, 141601, Berlin. In Baltes, M. M., Kohli, M. and Sames, K. (eds) Erfolgreiches Altem: Bedingungen und Variationen. Huber, Bern. In press.
Dittmann-Kohli, F. 1988a. Sinndimensionen im Frühen und Späten Erwachsenenalter. In Bierhoff, H. -W. and Nienhaus, R. (eds) Psychogerontologie (pp. 73114). Universität Marburg, Marburg.
Dittmann-Kohli, F. 1988b. Self and meaning of life: central domains of personality development in adulthood. In Rapoport T., Ben-Ari E. and Haste H. (eds). Changing Lives, Lives in Change: Interdisciplinary Study of the Life Course. In press.
Dittmann-Kohli, F. 1989a. Zur Konstruktion von Lebenssinn und Zufriedenheit im Alter. In Knopf, D., Schaefter, U. and Schmidt, R. (eds) Produktivität des Alters (pp. 186207). Deutsches Zentrum für Altersfragen, Berlin.
Dittmann-Kohli, F. 1989b. Erfolgreiches Altern aus subjektiver sicht. In Baltes, M. M., Kohli, M. and Sames, K. (eds) Erfolgreiches Altern. Bedingungen und Variationen. Huber, Bern.
Erikson, E. H. 1968. The human life cycle, International Encyclopedia of Social Science. McMillan and Free Press, New York.
Graesser, A. C. 1981. Prose Comprehension Beyond the Word. Springer, New York.
Lerner, M. J. and Gignac, M. 1988. Coping and Growth among the Elderly. Invited address presented at the Canadian Psychological Association Meetings, Montreal, 10 06.
Kihlstrom, J. F. and Cantor, N. 1984. Mental representation of the self. In Berkowitz, L. (ed) Advances in Experimental and Social Psychology, Vol. 17. Academic Press, New York.
Markus, H. and Wurf, E. 1987. The dynamic self-concept: a social psychological perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 38, 299337.
Nies, H. and Munnichs, J. 1986. Sinngebung und Altern. Deutsches Zentrum für Altersfragen, Berlin.
Nuttin, J. 1984. Motivation, Planning, and Action: A Relational Theory of Behavior. Leuven University Press, Leuven and Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ.
Nuttin, J. and Lens, W. 1985. Future Time Perspective and Motivation. Leuven University Press, Leuven and Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ.
Pekrun, R. 1988. Emotion, Motivation and Persönlichkeit. Psychologie Verlagsunion, München.
Pietrasinski, Z. 1988. Toward a theory of autonomizing promotion of adult development. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 19, 3141.
Reker, G. T. and Wong, T. P. 1988. Aging as an individual process: toward a theory of personal meaning. In Birren, J. E. and Bengtson, V. L. (eds) Emergent Theories of Aging. Springer, New York.
Schank, R. C. and Abelson, R. 1977. Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ.
Schütz, A. 1971. Strukturen der Lebenswelt. In Schütz, I. (ed) Gesammelte Aufsätze, vol III. Nijhoff, Den Haag.
Searle, J. R. 1983. Intentionality. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Taylor, S. E. 1983. Adjustment to threatening events: a theory of cognitive adaptation. American Psychologist, 38, 1161–73.
Tergan, S.-O. 1986. Modelle der Wissenrepräsentation als Grundlage qualitativer Wissensdiagnostik. Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed