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Dementia is Scariest for Baby Boomers - expert here in NZ

Media Release

26 August 2014

Dementia is Scariest for Baby Boomers – But Meaning in Life Can Still be Found

Getting dementia tops the list of fears for older people including baby boomers, says a celebrated world authority on ageing and spirituality.

Yet, paradoxically, ageing is a natural state and it is possible to find meaning in life even in dementia, she says.

Australia’s 74 year old Rev Prof Elizabeth MacKinlay will be in New Zealand this week for workshops and a conference hosted by The Selwyn Foundation, a New Zealand charitable trust providing residential care, independent living and community services for older kiwis.

The workshops are “Spiritual Reminiscence in Dementia”, and are designed to help those working in aged care support those with dementia. The workshops encourage professionals to help people with dementia unlock what is important to them, and help them find meaning at the end of their lives.

“Without exception, everyone searches for meaning from mid life onwards. I have found the search for meaning is across different ethnic groups and cultures,” says Prof MacKinlay. “This is the ‘final life career’ – the end of life. It’s just as important as anything that’s gone before it. The second half of life is spiritual. You ask: why am I here? What’s been the purpose of my life? When we’re busy doing things, we sometimes put off the task of looking into this question. Suddenly, we may be confronted. Is it too late? The big questions start to emerge. Even in dementia, the search for meaning is there.”

One of the key issues for dementia healthcare, she says, is that everything it practises is about measuring and judging. “We think of humans as cognitive. We live in a hypercognitive society. Yet the person with dementia still has the ability to be emotional, and to find meaning. Research has shown over the past few years that centres of the brain which deal with emotion are probably not damaged by dementia until very late in the disease, if at all,” she says. “When you are diagnosed with dementia, you become aware you are being tested all the time. You’re given tests by the healthcare teams. It feels like you’re being tripped up. Yet some of this may not be relevant to you as a person. So our workshops teach people caring for those with dementia to help people with dementia connect with their past and bring it into the present. It’s a conversation that begins with: what’s most important to you? Where do you find purpose in life?”

Professor MacKinlay says she was confronted early with the question of life’s meaning, when she was diagnosed with cancer in her thirties. “It was a time of deep self examination, a wakeup call. I began to make the journey I’m now on.”

That journey has taken Professor MacKinlay around the world as a sought-after international speaker on dementia and helping those with dementia find spiritual meaning, including to prestigious professional groups such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK. She is a registered nurse and priest in the Anglican Church, and was inaugural Director of the Centre for Ageing and Pastoral Studies in Canberra. Nowadays, she is Professor in the School of Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra. In 2013, her most recent book (co-authored with Trevitt) “Finding Meaning in the Experience of Dementia” was awarded the Australasian Journal of Ageing book prize.

Some of the work Prof MacKinlay does looks at unpacking what people think is ‘spirituality’. “It’s not religion, although religion may be a way of working out one’s spirituality” she says. “A lot of Australians and New Zealanders don’t have a religious faith. Yet they still search for meaning. This spiritual search is a form of connection. It’s an underlying sense of what it is to be human. So if people can find new ways of engaging with other human beings, new ways of being, new means of expression even in dementia, that is very important. A sense of spirituality is related to low anxiety about ageing in the studies we’ve done with baby boomers, and better outcomes in health.”

“A person who is working in aged care facilities is engaged in caring for the human spirit – irrespective of whether they’re in management, cleaning, preparing food, are doing the activities, are a caregiver or nurse. What we help those people do is to really connect and care for people, and not just think “I have six showers left to do.” You’re on a journey together with the people you care for.”

Prof MacKinlay tells a story of working with a woman with dementia who was grieving and not accepting her own diagnosis and was agitated. “She could no longer speak. We were having small group sessions of spiritual reminiscence on Friday mornings. After the last one she had been coming alive singing and dancing. Following this session, she had a stroke and was dead in less than 48 hours. Her daughter told me she had seen a huge change in her mother following the weekly sessions. She died at peace with herself.”

“Growing old is a natural state. It’s part of life,” says Prof MacKinlay. “Baby boomers in particular need to stop looking at ‘them out there who are old’ and the rest who are young and fit, and stop thinking they are never going to grow older.”

The Selwyn Foundation ( set up and operates The Selwyn Centre for Ageing and Spirituality, which is closely associated with Prof MacKinlay and her work. The Selwyn Centre for Ageing and Spirituality is headed by psychiatrist for older people, Dr Chris Perkins, who is an expert in dementia and also a sought after speaker. The Centre was set up in recognition that spirituality is central to holistic care of older New Zealanders. It funds professional education, innovative research into ageing, and advocacy. Prof MacKinlay’s visit to NZ will culminate on 28 August when she is a keynote speaker for The Selwyn Centre for Ageing and Spirituality Annual Conference, ‘Perspectives on Ageing and Spirituality’, held at Selwyn Village Auckland.


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