A Sense of Purpose Promotes Healthy Aging

Related topics: Mental and Emotional Health, Senior Lifestyles, Mental Health

Why are we here? What is our connection to other people? What do we offer to our community and the world?

A Foster Grandparents Program participant helps a grade school student improve her reading skills. Volunteering is one great way to build a sense of connectedness and purpose. (Photo: Corporation for National & Community Service)

The above questions might seem like abstract, philosophical matters, but research confirms that having a sense of purpose is vital for our health—especially as we grow older.

In 2009, Rush University Medical Center experts reported that people with a sense of purpose live longer. Lead researcher Patricia Boyle, Ph.D., said, "The finding that purpose in life is related to longevity in older persons suggests that aspects of human flourishing—particularly the tendency to derive meaning from life's experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal-directedness—contribute to successful aging."

And in 2012, Dr. Boyle and her team also found that a sense of purpose helps lessen the effects of Alzheimer's disease. Explained Dr. Boyle, "Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life—even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains."

Since then, other scientists have confirmed the connection between a sense of purpose and healthy aging. Why is a sense of purpose so protective? Researchers believe it reduces stress, increases beneficial hormones in the body, lowers blood pressure and decreases depression. Goal-directedness promotes cognitive reserve—the extra brain connections that help us cope against dementia. And an even more simple mechanism was discovered by University of Michigan researcher Eric Kim: Seniors who report that their lives have meaning are more likely to take advantage of preventive health services, such as cholesterol tests, colonoscopy, mammograms and prostate exams.

It's Never Too Late

It can be challenging to maintain our sense of purpose as we grow older. Our children are grown. Retirement removes a major life context. Ageist messages and derogatory media images of older adults can undercut our sense of worth. We may have lost our spouse. Health problems seem to occupy more of our attention, removing our focus from the big picture.

But it's worth it to seek out purpose, at any age. Says Carleton University researcher Patrick Hill, "Finding a direction for life and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose." He adds, "There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than young ones."

Seven Ways to Nurture a Sense of Purpose

Every person, no matter their abilities or health condition, can do things to make a difference. Consider these:

Write your life. Many people gain insight by keeping a journal. Or how about a more ambitious project? Reminiscence and reflecting on our life and legacy are important later-life tasks. Create a family history, a memoir you can pass to the younger generation. Just imagine how excited you would be to unearth a similar document from your own great-great-grandparents!

Participate in a faith community or other philosophical organization. Many cultures look to their elders for spiritual wisdom and insight. If you are already part of a religious or other meaning-focused community, make time to participate in gatherings that you enjoy. Or maybe it's time to expand your horizons and join a discussion group or online community that explores the big questions of life and history.

Attend a support group. If you are dealing with a health condition, providing care for an elderly or disabled loved one or have other challenges in your life, a support group can be a great place to share with others the things you've learned, and to receive and provide much-needed emotional comfort and empathy.

Meditate. Meditation can be a way to clear your mind of extraneous thoughts, allowing for deeper contemplation. As a bonus, it can reduce stress, improve your mood and lower your blood pressure.

Draw, paint, sing, dance. Expressing yourself through the arts helps you creatively explore the issues and experiences that are important to you. And your finished paintings or performances will communicate who you are and enrich the lives of others.

Go back to work? For some seniors, retirement leaves a big hole, and not only in their pocketbooks. If your health and inclinations permit, consider a part-time "encore career" to pick up some extra money and enjoy the context that work can provide.

Volunteer! We've left the best for last. Numerous studies have shown that volunteering reduces depression, and leads to a longer, healthier life. Many doctors "prescribe" volunteer service for senior patients. Helping others in this way benefits people of every age, but according to researchers from Baycrest Health Services in Toronto, "More vulnerable seniors (i.e., those with health conditions) may benefit the most from volunteering." There is a volunteer opportunity for almost everyone.

Helping Senior Loved Ones

No matter what their physical and cognitive health, seniors benefit from purposeful activities. Family caregivers can facilitate these types of activities in these ways:

  • Encourage your loved one to share memories. Interview them for a family history if they cannot write it themselves. Watch a historic documentary that can serve as a starting point for encouraging your loved one to share their own experiences with younger family members.
  • Help your loved one locate volunteer opportunities, in the community or in their senior living facility.
  • Provide transportation to their volunteer location, faith community, the senior center, etc.
  • Be alert for occasions when your loved one can feel needed. Let them do things at their own pace; don't step in to help just because you could do something faster.
  • If your loved one has Alzheimer's or other dementia, talk to their healthcare provider and other professionals about appropriate meaningful activities. Let your loved one set the table, fold laundry or help in the kitchen. We never outgrow our need to feel needed.

April 12 – 18, 2015 Is National Volunteer Week

Visit the website of the U.S. Corporation for National & Community Service (www.nationalservice.gov) to learn about volunteer opportunities, including SeniorCorps for people 55 and older. SeniorCorps includes Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2015 IlluminAge.


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