When Seniors Lack a Sense of Purpose

Contemplative senior man (80s) sitting in chair at home, looking out the window.

We all want to make a difference in the world, and to feel that our lives have meaning. Yet as we grow older, life changes can make us feel adrift, without goals or purpose. We retire from our jobs. Our children are grown, maybe moved away. Disabilities might reduce our ability to take part in meaningful activities. And it doesn’t help that our culture routinely delivers ageist messages that older adults aren’t as important or valuable.

This is a serious problem, say geriatrics experts. Consider these recent studies, which show a sense of purpose is linked with:

A healthier brain. The American Heart Association reported that people who said their lives had meaning were less likely to suffer brain damage from a stroke. Study author Patricia Boyle of Rush University also noted that purpose in life could protect against dementia by building stronger cognitive reserve—the extra brain connections that delay the signs of dementia.

A longer life. A study published in The Lancet found that a meaningful life may lead to a longer life. Researchers from University College London found that among the seniors they studied, those who reported frequent feelings of a worthwhile life were 30 percent less likely to die over the course of the study. Said Prof. Andrew Steptoe, “There are several biological mechanisms that may link well-being to improved health, for example through hormonal changes or reduced blood pressure.”

More years of independence. A long life is good; a healthier long life even is better! A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that people who felt a sense of purpose in life were more likely to retain good physical function and independence, as demonstrated by grip strength and walking speed.

A stronger heart. A study by researchers at Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital found that people who reported feeling useful to others tend to have better heart health. The researchers paid particular attention to a series of Japanese studies on the concept of ikigai, which translates to “a life worth living.” They say that a sense of purpose can help our bodies weather stress, and motivate us to live a healthier lifestyle.

Better sleep. In July 2017, researchers from Northwestern University published a study showing that “having a good reason to get out of bed in the morning means you are more likely to sleep better at night.” They found that purpose in life improves overall sleep and lowers the risk of sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia. They suggested enhancing purpose in life as a safer alternative to sleep medications.

These are just a few of the studies from recent years that should convince us to build a sense of purpose in our own lives, and to help senior loved ones do the same. Indeed, said researcher Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada, “There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than younger ones. For instance, adults might need a sense of direction more, after they have left the workplace and lost that source for organizing their daily events.”

Helping seniors find meaning in life

We might think that seniors who are coping with health challenges would be less focused on meaningfulness—but that is not true. Geriatricians call for “culture change” in senior living communities, senior services departments and other senior care providers, recognizing that people who see themselves as passive recipients of care lose their sense of identity. Allowing people who receive care to give back by helping others enhances their well-being immeasurably.

Little girls listening to their grandfather.More in this series can be found here:

If you or your loved one has experienced age-related loss of purpose, search out activities that can make a difference, such as:

A part-time job, if that’s feasible. Many seniors have eagerly retired, only to realize they miss the social opportunities and self-esteem that come from work.

Volunteering. So many organizations in the community need our help! There are volunteer opportunities for people of every age and ability. More seniors today are volunteering to help other seniors—that’s a growing need, for sure.

Meaning-based gatherings. Look for clubs, book groups, faith community meetings, classes or support groups where participants can explore philosophical issues. In-person gatherings are best, but online opportunities abound, as well.

Memoir writing. Putting our life story on paper is a powerful tool for creating a sense of who we are. If your loved one can’t do this without help, offer to transcribe their reminiscences. This can be a good activity for people with dementia, who are often more able to access earlier memories.

Intergenerational activities. The American Sociological Association reported that seniors who have adequate opportunity to offer advice and wisdom to younger people are much more likely to see their lives as highly meaningful. Look for opportunities at schools, day care centers, scout troops and other mentoring programs.  

If your family uses in-home care to support the well-being of an older relative, you can make purposeful activities part of your loved one’s care plan. As much as possible, your loved one can continue to participate in cooking, folding laundry and other tasks. The caregiver is there to help, not to take over. And in-home caregivers also can provide transportation to allow your loved one to continue to take part in appropriate, meaningful activities.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017.

A sense of purpose helps protect against dementia and depression. Read on to learn more about preventing these two conditions.