This lack of opportunity can lead to feelings of depression and meaninglessness in life. Schafer conducted a study which found that seniors who are able to share advice are more likely to feel their lives have meaning. In other words, he said, “It matters to matter. It is important to feel that one is meaningful, consequential and can have an influence on other people in various ways.”
Why do seniors experience a deficit in the sense of purpose? As we grow older, life changes can make us feel adrift, without goals or purpose. We retire from our jobs. Our children are grown and may have 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 important or valuable.
This is a serious problem, say experts in geriatric psychology. Consider these studies, which show a sense of purpose is liked with:
A healthier brain. Study author Patricia Boyle of Rush University noted that purpose in life could protect against dementia by building stronger “cognitive reserve”—the extra brain connections that delay the signs of dementia. And the American Heart Association found that people who reported that their lives had meaning were less likely to suffer brain damage from a stroke.
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 studied a group of seniors and found that 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 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. 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.”
The University of Toronto researchers said, “Our findings underscore the importance of giving older adults occasions to share their wisdom and life experiences. Schools, churches, civic organizations, and other community groups could consider how to facilitate intergenerational mentorship experiences and to creatively enable older adults to be advice-givers.”
Helping seniors find meaning in life
No matter what their living situation or health condition, older adults can find activities that make a difference. Here are just a few.
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 a person can’t do this without help, family or volunteers can transcribe their reminiscences. This can be a good activity for people with dementia, who are often more able to access earlier memories.
Intergenerational activities. This is another opportunity for older adults to share their wisdom with younger people. Look for volunteer jobs at schools, day care centers, scout troops, and other mentoring programs.
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 by other senior care providers, recognizing that people who see themselves as passive recipients of care can lose their sense of identity. Those who live in a senior living community often find value in serving on committees, volunteering to help other residents, and participating in other ways. Allowing people who receive care to give back by helping others enhances their well-being immeasurably.