After making it through the maelstrom of middle age, many adults find themselves approaching older age wondering “what will give purpose to my life?” now that the kids have flown the nest and retirement is in the cards.
How they answer the question can have significant implications for their health.
Over the past two decades, dozens of studies have shown that seniors with a sense of purpose are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, disabilities, heart attacks or strokes, and more likely to live longer than people without this kind of underlying motivation.
Now, a new report in JAMA Psychiatry is showing that older adults with a higher sense of purpose tend to retain strong hand grips and walking speeds, key indicators of how rapidly people are aging.
Why would a psychological construct have this kind of impact?
Seniors with a sense of purpose may be more physically active and take better care of their health, some research suggests. Also, they may be less susceptible to stress, which can fuel dangerous inflammation.
“Purposeful individuals tend to be less reactive to stressors and more engaged, generally, in their daily lives, which can promote cognitive and physical health,” said Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis who wasn’t associated with the study.
But what is purpose, really? And how can it be cultivated?
Anne Newman, a 69-year-old who splits her time between Hartsdale, north of New York City, and Delray Beach, Fla., said she’s been asking herself this “on a minute-by-minute basis” since closing her psychotherapy practice late last year.
Building and maintaining a career became a primary driver in her life after Newman raised two daughters and went back to work at age 48. As a therapist, she “really loved helping people make changes in their lives that put them in a different, better position,” she said.
Things became difficult when Newman’s husband, Joseph, moved to Florida and she started commuting back and forth from New York. Over time, the travel took a toll, and Newman decided that she didn’t want a long-distance marriage. So, she began winding down her practice and thinking about her next chapter.
Experts advise that people seeking a sense of purpose consider spending more time on activities they enjoy or using work skills in a new way. Newman loves drawing and photography and has investigated work and volunteer opportunities in Florida, but nothing has grabbed her just yet.
“Not knowing what’s going to take the place of work in my life, it feels horrible, like I’m floundering,” she said.
But it’s not uncommon. Many people go through a period of trial and error after retirement, said Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care at the University of California, San Diego. “This doesn’t happen overnight.”
“People don’t like to talk about their discomfort because they think it’s unusual. And yet, everybody thinks about this existential question at this time of life: ‘What are we here for?’ ” he said.
Focus on ‘small goals’
But focusing on something larger than oneself may be overreaching.
“I think people can get a sense of purpose from very simple things: from taking care of a pet, working in the garden or being kind to a neighbor,” said Patricia Boyle, a leading researcher in this field and professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“Even small goals can help motivate someone to keep going,” she said. “Purpose can involve a larger goal, but it’s not a requirement.”
Older adults often discover a sense of purpose from taking care of grandchildren, volunteering or becoming involved in community service work or religion.
“A purpose in life can arise from learning a new thing, accomplishing a new goal, working together with other people or making new social connections when others are lost,” she said.
Tara Gruenewald’s research highlights how important it is for older adults to feel they play a valuable role in the life of others.
“I think what we often lose as we age into older adulthood is not a desire to contribute meaningfully to others but the opportunity to do so,” said Gruenewald, chairwoman of the department of psychology at California’s Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University.
Her research has found that people who perceive themselves as being useful had a stronger feeling of well-being and were less likely to become disabled and die than those who didn’t see themselves this way.
“In midlife, we contribute to others partly because it’s demanded of us in work and in our social relationships,” Gruenewald said.
“As we grow older, we have to seek out opportunities to contribute and give to others.”