News - October 2010

Old age and people with special needs – finding the meaning

Being elderly and having special needs presents a double challenge. Anthroposophical social therapy shows ways to find meaning and benefit.

In old age the individual shows itself as very important and valuable.

“Today, as a 68 year old, I lead the comfortable life of a pensioner. Still happily helping in the office, in the shop, and with the post.” So writes a man with special needs at the end of his memoirs. Thanks to good companionship, people with special needs are living longer; the number of people over 50 in institutions has more than doubled since 1990, those over 60 tenfold. 

This fact leads to new questions and challenges on many levels in social therapy and its institutions, all of which are of concern to those who, as co-workers, relatives and those responsible for the finance, carry this task.

The fact is that today special needs and old age are regarded as negative concepts, bringing with it the danger of a double exclusion. Even though a new understanding for old age is growing ­– in both positive and negative senses – for people with special needs becoming old is by no means straightforward. People who do not have special needs can prepare for the new phase of their life on their own, consciously making provisions and planning their retirement. It is also easier for them to understand and if necessary accept the limitations that the aging process can bring. But for people with special needs this is often very difficult, if not impossible; they are therefore reliant on the help, support and accompaniment.

For many years now anthroposophical social therapists have concerned themselves with the questions of aging and people with special needs. Their work is based on an understanding of the human being that does not see aging, nor death and dying, in a negatively light, but as having meaning and value.

Individually-tailored transitions

People with special needs age very individually, so their care needs to be awake to their particular needs. This can mean providing for specific cultural and spiritual needs as well as making physical and organisational arrangements. The different fields of life of a person with special needs – living, work leisure, culture, social contact and self-worth – must be reviewed, transformed and adapted together with him. Many say that they would like to stay in their normal, familiar surroundings so that they can continue to take part in social and cultural life. Addressing these problems in an appropriate way is a great challenge. The change from working life to retirement must be handled very delicately. People with special needs are often unable to work full-time all the way up to retirement. They need more time to make the transition. Their workload must be individually and slowly reduced. And they are unable to cope with the abrupt change of ‘normal ‘ society from fulltime work to retirement. Moreover, for them not to be able to contribute through work can be a kind of devaluing of their worth.

Difficult, but valuable biography work 

The co-workers who accompany elderly people must be ready for the quite specific and special demands this entails. They need an appropriate attitude and a capacity for dialogue, but also to be inwardly concerned with the questions of aging. As with all elderly people working with biography can have a special meaning, because in old age childhood memories often surface, influencing their behaviour. It is the task of the carer to attend to the biography of a person with special needs with great sensitivity. Often such people have spent their whole lives in a home or community, and so have a ‘narrow’ biography. Many have also suffered social discrimination and experienced rejection, negative description and the loss or lack of familial references. Such experiences can return in old age and can make getting old very burdensome. However, where competent caring is practised, not only can this lad be lightened, but the deeper purpose of such a person’s life can sometimes be sensed.

Andreas Fischer


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Research into the quality of care

Several international research projects are currently running. Themes include exploration of the anthroposophical approach, the history of curative education, the meaning of child study, and the accompaniment of elderly people with special needs.

One such Swiss research project takes the form of a dissertation at Siegen University, Germany.* The study focuses on ‘Ways to Quality’, a response to the authorities’ need for quality development procedures that was developed together with anthroposophical institutions. In the curative education world there are many reservations about quality procedures. People are afraid that they do not ‘capture’ the specific nature of their work. 

By widely questioning co-workers in 26 institutions, through interviews with many people with special needs, through the involvement of relatives and auditors this project shows that ‘Ways to Quality’ is a process that fruitfully takes people with special needs into account. The process supports the practical work in many ways, so that not only are meaningful guidelines developed, but through them the question of the care and companionship of people with special needs becomes increasingly effective and sustainable. 

Matthias Spalinger leader professional and coordination place of the VAHS

*) Andreas Fischer: Concerning the quality of care in institutions for people with special needs.