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Finding Meaning and Purpose in Old Age
By
Ana Cocarla

Old age is often associated with wisdom and experience. Many people are happier as they grow older, due to a more developed emotional intelligence and increased depth, and a resulting balanced inner life. However, there are two things that tend to decrease as we age: the sense of meaning and purpose.

Retirement can symbolically mark the end of our middle years, due to the huge lifestyle change that people are too often unprepared for. Medical advancements in recent decades have increased longevity, but our social system has struggled to keep up. Thus people live longer, but the social structure doesn’t often promote a fulfilling old age. Many seniors go through a period of trial and error after retirement, in search of new meaning and purpose. This is a normal process that is crucial for happiness in old age. This new way of living a fulfilling life can be reached through countless activities, projects, and goals, and the meaning and purpose behind these are relative and subjective for everyone. What works for some might not work for others, but there are certainly options available to any senior in search of meaning and purpose..

Meaning vs. purpose

Although related, meaning and purpose are not the same.

Meaning is a psychological concept linked to the feeling we get when our thoughts, emotions, or actions make a difference and matter to others. Meaning is thus related to the significance of our lives. In contrast, our purpose is the journey we embark on, what we perceive as our calling, or the potential we believe we have for our lives. In practical terms, our purpose reflects our goals and having something to live for. For example, loving your children gives meaning to your life, but it isn’t a purpose. Your purpose might be raising them to become the best version of themselves.

Generally speaking, we can get a sense of meaning in our lives quite easily, through actions and feelings that impact others in a positive way: helping a friend through a hard time, loving your family, taking care of a pet, or by actions and steps that make us better people: learning something new, creativity etc. A sense of purpose is generally gained through more long-term life projects. Your purpose can be anything that matters to you, such as raising a happy family, becoming more knowledgeable, helping people in a way that uses your unique skills, etc.

Why we lose purpose and meaning as we age

There are a number of reasons why the sense of meaning and purpose can often be lost or more difficult to attain in old age.

Slowing down

Our middle age is usually characterized by a very busy lifestyle trying to build a career, raise children, take care of our aging parents etc. We are used to a fast pace and retirement suddenly seems very slow in contrast. This change of pace and lifestyle can require a gradual process in order to find meaning and purpose again, especially as retirement doesn’t offer the same opportunities for valuable contribution. Seniors, therefore, have to look for new opportunities.

Empty nest syndrome

Raising children is, for most people, one of the most fulfilling aspects of their life. For most of their adulthood, raising a happy and healthy family is a big life purpose filled with meaningful moments. Once the kids grow up and leave the family home, it is very common for aging parents to struggle to find a new focus. The relationship dynamic changes as the role of the parent becomes less prominent, and seniors need to find a new sense of purpose outside of their parent-child bond.

Accomplished major goals

By the time we reach our 70s, we might have already accomplished our main life goals and projects, leaving us feeling a bit empty and wondering what to focus on next. We have already surpassed the peak of our career and we have raised our kids, so we might feel as though there aren’t many goals for us to look forward to.

Unrealistic goals and past regrets

We might also lose meaning and purpose if we believe our goals have become unrealistic. We might regret the way we lived certain parts of our lives, what we did or didn’t do, that didn’t lead to our desired outcomes. It might feel as though it’s too late to accomplish those important life projects.

Disease or disability

Declining health and disabilities can restrict our options and activities. When we can no longer do the things we love, we also lose the meaning we got from those activities. Restricted mobility or reduced independence might also make seniors feel like a burden instead of having something to offer to their loved ones.

Why it’s important to preserve meaning and purpose

Our emotional well-being plays a big role in our overall health and longevity. For example, we already know that depression and loneliness (link to previous articles) can have negative health effects. As it turns out, many studies have shown that having a sense of meaning and purpose can impact our health in a positive way, protecting against Alzheimer’s, disabilities, cardiovascular problems, and impairment. A strong sense of purpose might also slow down aging and increase longevity. A new study has found that elders with a sense of purpose tend to have better physical function such as stronger grips and faster walking speeds, which indicate how fast someone is aging.

The health benefits of having a purpose in life might also be related to the fact that seniors with a strong sense of purpose have been shown to be happier, take better care of themselves and lead healthier lifestyles. They sleep better and respond better to stress. Also, seniors with a sense of purpose are more engaged in their life, which helps preserve cognitive function and overall physical well-being.

Finding purpose and meaning

After retirement, we often start thinking about questions such as ‘why are we here?’, ‘what is our purpose?’. These should be taken as positive opportunities to take advantage of the free time we have and reinvent ourselves, start new projects, and give new meanings to our lives. In our middle age, our contribution to society and our loved ones came almost automatically, in the form of responsibilities. We had children to raise, a family to provide for, work responsibilities etc. In old age, the will to give to others is just as strong, but the opportunities for doing so might become less obvious. Seniors have to actively search for, and create, opportunities to contribute in order to feel purposeful.

The good news is that seniors always have something to offer. Regardless of age or physical condition, they can combine their skills, experience, and knowledge to contribute to society, their community, or their family in various ways. Even though old age can cause health and mobility issues that restrict seniors’ choices for activities, there can always be a way of adapting to the new situation that is still meaningful and purposeful.

Aging as strength

As Dr. Marc Agronin says in his book ‘The End of Old Age’, old age doesn’t have to be our enemy. With purpose and the right mindset, aging is not weakness but strength. We continue to learn and grow, and while we do face adversity, we can overcome it by reinventing ourselves and gaining a sense of purpose. Dr. Agronin showcases various people who have reshaped their sense of purpose in old age. The most notable example is Henry Matisse, who was unable to paint during his final years following surgery. He then made the most out of his skills by turning to cut-outs as a new type of medium for his art. You may no longer do certain sports, but you may be able to do other ones such as yoga, walking, or swimming. You might no longer be able to be a professional dancer, but you could become a teacher or choreographer. You might not be able to chase your grand-kids in the park, but you can still interact with them in other deep and satisfying ways. In fact, it is the wisdom and skills accumulated during your years that can often help you reinvent yourself in a meaningful way. You can, therefore, accomplish great things because of your age, and not in spite of it.

Mindset

It is often our mindset that determines how we find meaning in our lives. The way you look at what you have is crucial to how easily you can find purpose and meaning. Some people fall into the trap of talking often about various negative parts of aging, such as pain, physical difficulties etc. However, focusing on the positive aspects of life will, in time, lead to a more optimistic mindset necessary for finding meaning and purpose. Developing gratitude will inevitably lead to a happier life. Learn to let go of expectations. Unfulfilled expectations are one of the biggest sources of disappointment. Instead, accept others as they are. Living without expectations of how others should behave towards us leads to gratitude and more meaningful moments. Nobody is born with the knowledge of how to find purpose, and there is no objective answer. What we can do is to keep learning and try to understand ourselves a bit more each day. Having a positive, open mind will lead to the discovery of meaningful projects, passions, and feelings.

Creativity

Creativity can play a huge role in helping seniors find purpose and meaning. The concept of creative aging was developed by one of the founding fathers of geriatric psychiatry, Dr. Gene Cohen. Dr. Cohen saw vast potential for fulfillment in old age, promoting creativity as a way for people to discover possibilities instead of problems. His publication ‘Creativity and Aging Study’ demonstrated the positive effects of arts on the physical and emotional health of seniors. The process of creating can bring a great sense of meaning that elderly people benefit from. And there’s certainly a form of creativity for everyone to enjoy and explore as a way of becoming more in tune with themselves. Now is the time to go back to your old hobby of painting, making jewelry, or clay sculptures. You’ve always wanted to write poetry or a novel? Now is your chance. If you don’t yet know what creative activity you enjoy, consider taking a course in something completely new. Try different creative activities until you find what you’re passionate about.

Ways to find meaning

As mentioned above, there is no objective way to find meaning, as each person will find different activities and aspects of life meaningful. The key is to experiment with different ways of finding meaning in order to figure out what works for you. Here are a few ways to start:

  • Change your routine
  • Explore
  • Family life
  • Continuous employment
  • Learning something new

Goals

Establishing various goals can be a good way to find purpose. Goals can be a big life project such as ‘my purpose is to help raise my grand-kids and offer them as much knowledge as I can’ or ‘my potential is to become healthier, prove that you can be fit at any age, and inspire other seniors’. However, many people struggle to find one big life purpose goal, and if that’s the case, your goals don’t have to be big. Small goals can work just as well. You can gain a sense of purpose from smaller goals through the activities that are meaningful to you. You can plan to complete a course, form a stronger bond with your family, rescue and take care of a pet, or any other goals that are meaningful to you.

Statements

Create a list of statements to guide in the right direction for how you want to spend your time and approach experiences. The statements should be something simple such as:

  • I will approach new experiences with an open mind
  • I will be non-judgmental towards others and myself
  • I will help others in any way I can
  • I will be grateful for what I have

Reading these statements each morning can help start your day in a positive way, giving you the motivation you need to be proactive in finding meaning and purpose. Remember the importance of mindset. Regardless of your age or situation, you can always find meaning and purpose. Finding what’s meaningful to you can take some time and practice, so simply experiment. Wake up every day asking yourself ‘how will I take advantage of this new day?’ or ‘how can I be of service to someone else today?’, and be open to any opportunities that may arise.