Time Flies When You're Growing Old
Rewind the Week – 6 June 2014

Finding Purpose in Old Age

Yesterday Paula Span, who contributes to the New Old Age blog at The New York Times, reported on some recent studies about the benefits of having a purpose in late life.

Although not definitive, the research discoveries about purpose (or lack thereof) in her story are impressive:

”It turns out that purpose has long associated with satisfaction and happiness, better physical functioning, even better sleep,” reports Span. “'It’s a very robust predictor of health and wellness in old age,' said Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago.”

More, purpose may also provide some protection against dementia:

”Following almost 1,000 people (age 80, on average) for up to seven years, Dr. Boyle’s team found that the ones with high purpose scores were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s than those with low scores; they were also less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor.

“'It also slowed the rate of cognitive decline by about 30 percent, which is a lot,' Dr. Boyle added.”

(An abstract of the study an be found at the Journal of the American Medical Association.)

It gets better. An earlier study of Dr. Boyle's points to healthier, longer lives of people with purpose:

”Purposeful people were less likely to develop disabilities. And they were less likely to die: a sample of 1,238 people followed for up to five years (average age: 78) by Rush researchers found that those with high purpose had roughly half the mortality rate of those with low purpose.”

The abstract of that study is here.)

And further:

”This protective effect holds through the years, according to a recent study by Dr. [Patrick] Hill, which relied on a national longitudinal study that enrolled 7,100 Americans aged 20 to 75.

“Those who died, in all age groups, scored significantly lower on purpose-in-life scales.

“The researchers looked at whether purpose had less effect after retirement, when 'you’re starting to lose those structures you had, a natural way to organize your daily life,' Dr. Hill said. Somewhat to his surprise, work status didn’t matter.”

Like me, you might be wondering how these researchers are defining such a squishy quality as purpose. Span apparently had the the same question:

”It’s a hard quality to measure, so researchers rely on how strongly people agree or disagree with statements like these:

“Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”

“I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.”

“I live life one day at a time and do not really think about the future.”

“I sometimes feel as if I have done all there is to do in life.”

Purpose is not a quality that, like height or weight, can be quantified but these definitions work for me. Common sense alone tells us that purpose and goals are more likely than not to give us reason to get out of bed in the morning. Can better health be far behind?

I got lucky – with no effort or thought to the future, I was still working when I began following my curiosity about what it was going to be like to be old and that morphed into this blog.

Ten years in, it's gratifying to know that many readers find it valuable and that makes the effort purposeful beyond the personal. But even if no one were reading TGB, I would be doing the work; my interest hasn't flagged and there is still far more I don't know than what I do know.

In addition, that interest has led to my involvement in the Villages movement resulting in becoming a founding member of Three Rivers Village. Let me tell you a little story about that:

Not long ago, an acquaintance told me that he felt bad about joining our Village development group because a big part of his reason is the opportunity to meet new people.

I've heard similar reservations from others who volunteer in a variety of organizations. They seem to feel that it's a cheat, that their volunteerism is somehow morally suspect if their secondary, or even primary goal is personal gain.

I see it differently. How can any of us go wrong if, in attempting to help ourselves, we also helps others? Everyone wins. And I've never met anyone who volunteers in any capacity who doesn't benefit personally in many ways – feeling better about him/herself, learning new skills, even lifting depression plus making new friends.

When I moved here in 2010, I didn't know anyone. After I felt settled in, I found some volunteer work to do, met some people, followed my interests in aging that led, last year, to the beginning of our Village. Like the acquaintance mentioned above, my intentions in these endeavors were not and are not entirely altruistic or “pure.”

Although I strongly believe that Villages will be – are becoming – a crucially important element in elders helping one another as we age and it makes me feel good to know that our Village will be part of that, another serious motivation is to ensure that it will be there for me when I need help getting by day to day.

Does that make the work I do with the other Village volunteers less valuable? I don't believe that for a minute. Nor do I think mixed motivation detracts from the health benefits these researchers are discovering.

To be clear, purpose is not necessarily about volunteering. This blog, hardly a volunteer organization, has given me a hugely satisfying sense of purpose for the past ten years, and whatever gives your life meaning serves you well as purpose.

You can read all of Paula Span's article on purpose here. (Hat tip to all who sent this to me.)

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Vicki E. Jones: The Interview


I struggle with finding my purpose. I am two and a half years out from the ending of 17 years spent as a caregiver---5 with my dad and 12 with my husband. I explore and 'try on' different things in the community but nothing is sparking that same zest and enthusiasm I remember having when I was younger. But I am hopeful I'll find it as long as I keep looking.

I'm into my third year of retirement from teaching. The first year I joined two town committees, took up golf,and attended a writing class. I chose each one of them simply for something to do, not out of any burning interest. I had also found that with retirement, many of my friendships fell away, so I was looking for new acquaintances.
I'm still terrible at golf (and don't much care), but enjoy the time with two ladies I found to play with. I've gotten to know people in town through the committees, and even asked one member to help me form a writing group in town.
My writing class has changed my life. I really do feel I have purpose. I've gained several new friends (with similar interests), begun a blog (which gives me a real sense of accomplishment, not to mention an outlet), and written a book, and am in the middle of a second.
It took time, but now instead of inventing tasks around the house to fill my day, I'm challenged to fit everything in.
Having purpose is absolutely essential to my peace of mind.

Volunteering by its very nature must be self-serving. What philosophy or religion implies that the value of doing good is measured only by the deprivation, inconvenience or pain experienced by the giver? Does anyone endorse giving to others with anything less than a full, loving heart? Find something that resonates both in what you want to give and what can make you thrive in return. It's out there!

Dear Ronni....Your blog adds great value to my life. Thanks for having this purpose. :)

Finding a “purpose in life” and being a useful member of society might go far beyond the usual benefits mentioned, it may be a matter of self preservation. How society treats elderly members of their community varies from culture to culture. Nomadic tribes, in the past, have been known to leave their elderly behind when moving from place to place because they are just too much of a burden to carry around and feed. On the other hand, tribes in New Guinea treat their elderly with respect by finding “jobs” for them to do like babysitting and child care. Therefore being useful and finding purpose may only be another way of saying “Hey wait, don't leave me behind to die.”

It makes sense to me that if we are useful our bodies respond. When we cease to be of use to ourselves or to others there is little purpose in life and our bodies also respond in kind and, as they too are no longer useful, they decline. Then the ice floe beckons.

I read this article earlier this morning and immediately thought of you and your blog, Ronni. Glad to see that others did likewise. I figured, with all of your connections, that you would soon find and read it and wondered what you would think. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

When I left my 21-year teaching career, my goal was to get a good job, doing good things with good people. I had hoped for it to be a paying job, but alas, I found no one wanted to hire an old school teacher.

However, I have found that many organizations are quite happy to utilize my skills, pro bono, for the good of the community. So, I have found my purpose in doing those tasks and being content with my teacher pension.

Nothing beats the good feelings that come from doing for others. It is self-serving in many good ways. It can be as simple as "being there" for someone as a positive influence or as complex as performing tasks that couldn't be affordable or possible without you. I think being engaged in living rather than waiting for it to pass by is something I will always try to do regardless of limitations that might come my way. Lots of good examples hang out at your blog, Ronni.

Readers' comments to Paula Span's article are as interesting as the article itself. As are readers' comments to TGB! Sometimes I think my purpose in life is to broaden my understanding of other peoples' thoughts and opinions.

When Dad died, Mom felt she'd lost her purpose. I told her that showing us four kids how to live happily in old age was really valuable - to me anyway, and could she find purpose in that? She is happy and busy now, with friends and church. But do you think that is too selfish a motive for a kid to offer an elderly parent?

Every day I feel like I am one of the lucky ones. I worked for years in jobs that provided some security but little else. Now, in my elder years - I can follow my passion to make art, write about art, promote art. I particularly try to promote women artsts who still have a hard time establishing themselves in a largely male dominated world. Each day is a new adventure.

Thought today's entry was right on target. Since I have worked for myself since the mid-1970's, I find the transition to "retirement" less of an entering a new world, and more of a gradual shift in both what I do and the intensity of effort to do these things. I also find my curiosity about things has broadened, and thus my world at the age of 77, rather than shrinking, is actually expanding.

"Doing/being whatever gives your life meaning" says it all for me, whether in paid work or retirement.

Apart from involvement in an organisation to help older English-speaking people in crisis, my meaning and joy comes from gardening: creating habitats for insects, birds and bees, adding more beauty to our environment and giving the fruit trees lots of TLC gives me a sense of purpose with every passing season.

OH has his graphic art blog for modellers of steam locomotives and regularly he adds to an existing fine body of work.

I notice the aimlessness and uneasiness of some people here who, having left their homeland, do not have particular interests. They are bored and restless much of the time and these are the ones who get sick and die young...or they return to UK to be bored and aimless there.

Everything you write is so spot on! I also agree with all the commenters. I love that one person said she continues joining things to find a purpose--that's a purpose onto itself! write on.

Ronni, great post. I enjoyed all the comments.

I too am a retired teacher who was used to a military schedule five days a week.

It was scary-great to jump off that speedboat, but I kept one foot in by part time supervising student teachers for the next 9 years.

To me, the word "purpose" is in the bowl with focus, strength, skills and motivation.

No. Finish. Line.

That's my t shirt.

Some seniors gather in malls, and seem happy to sit for hours, scratching lottery tickets and chatting with friends.

I walk by and wonder if they feel like their lives are over, that they have no purpose.

Nothing left to learn. No new horizons?

My purpose is to take advantage of every minute of every day until the end.

That means volunteering part time, doing something good, paving the way for someone else.

Right now I vol a couple hours a week in an independent living senior home, not a nursing home.

I serve lunch to a group of 21 seniors, mostly women, and they are starting to tell me their stories.

It's never boring and I am making new friends.

I also vol a half day a week in an adult education ESL program with people from all over the world.

Why do I do that?

When I arrived in Bangkok in 1997, with 10 notarized copies of my teaching credentials, and two thousand dollars, plus return plane ticket I was totally on my own in a city of strangers.

Make it or break it.

But I found jobs and was treated very respectfully by my Thai students, their teachers and the people in my small apartment building.

Teaching ESL is the payback.

Lynn S. I told my 90 something mom the same thing a couple years ago.

She's our rock, and she knows her purpose is to be the CEO of our family.

She earned it.

Last Spring for a four week period I conducted a Yiddish Conversation group here at Brooksby Village.

I did not have much publicity, only a handful of people attended but those that participated enjoyed the class very much.

I enjoy speaking Yiddish, get a great deal of satisfaction speaking the Mother Tongue and enjoy hearing others share it with me.

I'll be starting another class next week. This time I will have lots of publicity, our weekly newsletter, the monthly events calendar and even Brooksby Village's TV station will let the residents know "what's happening!

I'm offering this class for a four week period and if it gets a good response I would be delighted to continue the group.

I have stressed that I am not teaching the class, My purpose is to have the people that attend speak Yiddish, have conversations and have fun!

If they enjoy it, I certainly will too!

I am less than a month away from retirement. Old age is already here or at my heels, at least. I need to find a purpose in a hurry! Maybe I'll start a blog? I seem to know a few success stories in this regard.

I agree with everyone that is very important to be interested in something at all stages of ones life.

Saying that, I am looking for a new idea and interest. As the saying goes, when one door is closed, one must look for a window to open.

PS: my passion is humor.

Sometimes I wonder if my life has a purpose. As I have said here before, perhaps too often, I am not an early bird eating the healthy worm, but instead am fairly sedentary. Being more or less crippled with fibromyalgia and arthritis, I avoid activities which involve an actual physical presence, which is why my on-line presence is such an important part of my life. I spend many hours reading print and on-line publications to maintain awareness of what's going on in the world and use what I have learned to comment in forums such as The NYTimes, Wash Post, Salon, The Nation, Daily Kos, and a number of others. I also email my congressional and State representatives and bombard relatives with pleas to sign petitions, write representatives, etc. It's my version of speaking truth to power.

Aside from fairly generous contributions to political, environmental and humane organizations (Planned Parenthood being at the top of the list) there is not a lot more I can do. But on the whole, what I do keeps my mind active and my conscience soothed, so it will have to suffice for my dotage.

I was given our family piano some years ago and I knew that when I retired I wanted to play it. Then a man in our town put out a call for anyone who wanted to play a musical instrument or wanted to play an instrument that they had played many years ago. One of the reasons that I did retire was because I started playing flute with this group and wanted more practice time. Between that and the piano I am very satisfied. And the really interesting thing is that I had no idea that I was going to want to continue to play either instrument...I only knew that I wanted to give both of them a try again and see if I could make more progress than I did the first time around!!

My mother stressed volunteering for people for years.
I volunteer for animals. What ever I can do to make their life more comfortable..I do what I can. I also have arthritis real bad so I do only as much as I can.

I must be a most fortunate person whose mantra is: Old age is worth waiting for! As the "history lady" at the local library (8 years now) I get the questions on local history and family history. There's one fly in the ointment: young folks who think history began in 1960. I love what I do and now go in every afternoon. Here at home I continue to maintain the grounds (doctor's orders). Joy in living at 83.

Sorry, I have to come in again with an observation from some of the comments and further thoughts. Those who seem to be living a meaningful, purposeful life are those who are learning something new - a language, musical instrument, painting, writing and finding their way round a computer..... there must be something in that.

There are plenty of places to volunteer. Just find something you think you might like, get curious, walk in and ask the question.

Best thing about volunteering is you have control of how much time you want to give and what you can do.

Last year I inadvertently found a purpose...in local politics. For many years as a journalist I couldn't speak out on any local controversies, but only report on them in as neutral a manner as possible. As local news reporting decreased there was less-and-less work until finally it dried up. So....last April when I heard that our township committee was quietly introducing an ordinance that would divert a large amount of our open space tax away from land preservation, I stepped forward. I attended meetings, gathered together eight other like-minded residents, and formed a group to oppose the ordinance. We wrote news releases, did FB, ran informational seminars, started a blog, lined up LTEs and learned all about NJ election laws. We were called names by anonymous posters and our opposition spent a lot of money lying about us and the ballot question. The hours were long and the fight exhilarating. We won by a landslide. Two of the people involved in the fight are now running for the township committee and I am a member of their campaign team. [Unfortunately my blog has suffered...I need to get back to that.]

Good for you, Meg. Incidentally, Planned Parenthood has been at the top of our list of organizations to support for many years.

I have a long and extensive family history of depression/anxiety. I am almost retired with no family living with me--just a puppy. I find that the depression is coming back even though I take Paxil as a preventive. I still work because I have difficulty of getting up in the morning if I don't. I can sleep forever! Does anyone have a medical professional or blog to recommend?
I live NW of Houston.

John, there are other medication brands (each has their own unique formulae) for depression/anxiety and they differ when used, so ask your physician for another one.

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