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Existential topics in advanced age

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The life stage of advanced age is characterized by challenges, but also by loss experiences. In this line of research, we study how nursing home residents experience meaning in their lives, and how a loss of meaning in life and existential loneliness is related to decreased mental health, visible in augmented depressive symptoms.

In this line of research, we focus on the experience of meaning in life in older adults with dementia and its relation to their well-being and cognitive functioning over time, using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

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Meaning, existential loneliness & mental health in nursing home residents 

Meaning in life and
psychological functioning in dementia

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Geriatric depressive symptoms and existential distress

Despite the similarities between depressive symptoms and existential distress (like meaninglessness and existential loneliness),virtually no knowledge is available on how they relate to each other in a nursing home population. This project aims to clarify the relationship between geriatric depressive symptoms and existential distress, and does this both from the perspective of nursing home residents and nursing home professionals.

Tiredness of life and existential anxiety

This project aims to understand of the role of existential anxiety (due to existential isolation, meaninglessness, and guilt) in older adults who are tired of life without suffering from a severe physical or mental disorder. We will make use of a mixed method design to explore both the lived experience and the development of existential anxiety and tiredness of life over time.

Conceptual topics in existential and positive psychology

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The psychological concept of
meaning in life

These studies try to gain insight in the phenomenon and concept of ‘meaning in life’ by asking individuals to describe their ideas and experiences (bottom-up approach). Aim of these studies is to provide knowledge in order to define and conceptualize this multi-layered phenomenon in a more valid way.

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Grace and forgiveness

These studies investigate the psychological understanding and experience of grace and forgiveness. The project is in an interdisciplinary collaboration between psychology (Prof. Dezutter) and theology (Prof. Dillen). The project is explicitly mixed-method and applies novel qualitative research designs and analytic techniques.

Selected references

Dewitte, L., Schellekens, T., Steger, M.F., Martela, F., Vanhooren, S., Vandenbulcke, M., Dezutter, J. (2021). What can we learn about the concept of meaning in life from older adults with Alzheimer’s disease? A directed content analysis study. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 1-27. 

Haugan, G., Dezutter, J. (2021). Meaning-in-Life: A Vital Salutogenic Resource for Health. In: G. Haugan, M. Eriksson (Eds.), Health Promotion in Health Care – Vital Theories and Research, Chapt. 8, (85-101). Cham, Switzerland: Springer. 


Dewitte, L., van Wijngaarden, E., Schellekens, T., Vandenbulcke, M., Dezutter, J. (2020). Continuing to participate in the dance of life as oneself: The lived experience of meaning in life for older adults with Alzheimer's disease. The Gerontologist.

Schellekens, T., Dillen, A., Dewitte, L., Dezutter, J. (2020). A Lay Definition of Grace: a Quantitative and Qualitative Content Analysis. International Journal For The Psychology Of Religion, 1-23.


Schellekens, T., Dillen, A., Dezutter, J. (2020). Experiencing Grace: A Thematic Network Analysis of Person-level Narratives. Open Theology, 6 (1), 360-373. 


Dezutter, J., Toussaint, L., Dewitte, L. (2019). Finding a Balance Between Integrity and Despair: A Challenging Task for Older Adults in Residential Care. Journal of Adult Development, 1-10. 

Dewitte, L., Vandenbulcke, M., & Dezutter, J. (2018). Cognitive functioning and quality of life: Diverging views of older adults with Alzheimer and professional care staff. International journal of geriatric psychiatry.

Derdaele, E., Toussaint, L., Thauvoye, E., & Dezutter, J. (2017). Forgiveness and late life functioning: The mediating role of finding ego-integrity. Aging & Mental Health, 1-8.

Dewitte, L., Granqvist, P., & Dezutter, J. (2018). Meaning Through Attachment: An Integrative Framework. Psychological reports, 0033294118799739.

Van der Heyden, K., Dezutter, J., & Beyers, W. (2015). Meaning in life and depressive symptoms: A person-oriented approach in residential and community-dwelling older adults. Aging & mental health, 19(12), 1063-1070

Broader public contributions

Dewitte, L. & Dezutter, J. (2021). Zijn cognitieve moeilijkheden gerelateerd aan verminderd welbevinden voor ouderen met dementie? Enkele bevindingen uit psychologisch onderzoek in Vlaamse woonzorgcentra. Senior Tijdschrift voor Kwaliteitsvolle Ouderenzorg, 2(3). 

Schellekens, T., & Dezutter, J. (2018). Vergeving, ook een psychologisch concept. Communio: Internationaal Katholiek Tijdschrift. 

Dezutter, J., & Thauvoye, E. (2017). Op zoek naar een balans tussen ego-integriteit en wanhoop. Geron: Tijdschrift over Ouder Worden & Maatschappij, 19(4), 60-62.

Dezutter, J. (2016). Het biopsychosociaal zorgmodel: Een integraal zorgmodel? VIEWZ (Vol. 1). Vanden Broele.

Dezutter, J. (2016). Een patiënt is meer dan een biomedisch object. Sociaal.Net.

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