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.
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.
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 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:
The practice of being present in the moment, of becoming more aware and conscious can bring a great deal of meaning to your life. It might teach you more about yourself, your habits and your feelings, which can help you gain clarity in order to create change and establish a sense of direction in your life.
Mindfulness can increase happiness and help you better cope with negative emotions, therefore it can promote an overall positive outlook that will make you perceive your life as more meaningful.
One of the best ways to practice mindfulness is through meditation, which can enrich your inner life over time.
Change your routine
Many seniors fall into a routine of doing the same unfulfilling activities each day, which often results in losing the sense of meaning and purpose. If you’re getting up every day to the prospect of not doing anything that brings you satisfaction, it’s time to create new routines in your life.
Don’t let time fly by without doing anything. You can experiment with anything, from calling a different friend or family member every day for a chat, to going for a 15 minute light walk around your neighborhood, or reading a book every month.
Try establishing a new daily practice as well, which would be something you can do each day to bring you a deeper sense of meaning, such as keeping a journal or playing a musical instrument.
Expand your mind and horizons by trying the things you’ve always wanted to. Join a group, experiment with cooking dishes from different cuisines, try vegetarian food, learn about different religions and cultures, or try a new activity each week.
Nothing beats the sense of meaning that our loved ones bring to our lives.
Your kids might be grown up or living in different parts of the world, and the parent-child relationship might have changed. Their newfound independence might have left you with a lack of purpose, but remember that this is the result of you successfully doing your job as a parent. Be proud for raising your kids to become successful adults, and rest assured that they still need and want you in their life. Be there for them emotionally and offer your support.
Get more involved in your grand-kids’ lives, take them to the park, to a movie, or to lunch. Seeing them grow up can fill your life with meaning. Speak to other family members often and invite them over for tea or dinner. Become more connected with your family in any way you can.
Look for opportunities to contribute
There’s nothing more meaningful than feeling that what you do helps others. Actively create opportunities to contribute.
- Grandchildren: support your children by offering to babysit your grand-kids whenever you can, or help the little ones with homework.
- Adopt a pet: our pets depend on us for everything, so taking care of a rescued animal can fill your life with new meaning and purpose. Also, dogs provide opportunities for interacting with other members of your community. You can meet other dog owners in the park and make new friends.
- Take care of plants: similarly, taking care of live plants can also be a meaningful activity that doesn’t require as much effort as an animal.
- Get involved in your local community: Foster a sense of connection by meeting your neighbors, looking for local events, volunteering locally, and offering your help. The feeling of belonging will add meaning to your life.
- Volunteer: when it comes to drawing meaning from helping others, volunteering is a great option. Giving back to society will make you feel good about yourself, and give you a sense of satisfaction and purpose from knowing that what you’re doing makes a difference.
Like volunteering, work can also be very rewarding. If you aren’t enjoying retirement, you could consider continuous employment. You could look for a part-time job in your industry, or take the opportunity to try something completely different.
Learning something new
We’re constantly learning throughout our lives, and it shouldn’t be any different in old age. Learning can be a meaningful experience for you. You can check out various courses in your areas and explore a new topic, or improve your existing skills. There are also plenty of universities across the US that offer free or cheap classes for seniors.
Learning something new will not only keep your mind sharp and your soul fulfilled, but it will also provide the chance to meet other people and make friends, fueling the feeling of belonging.
For many people, religion is a key source of meaning and purpose in life. The belief that God loves each of us can make life meaningful while servicing Him can be a purpose in one’s life. Getting involved in a religious institution can change your emotional life in a positive way, also offering the opportunity to connect with other like-minded people.
Looking back on your life in a positive way can make you see how meaningful it all was. Talking about your life experiences with your grandchildren can also bring value to their lives and help create a stronger bond.
If your physical condition and financial situation allow, you can try traveling as a form of meaningful experience. Traveling offers you the opportunity to learn about different cultures, experience new cuisines, listen to different music styles, and meet new interesting people. These can all be meaningful experiences that could also offer a sense of purpose. Approach each trip with the goals to have these experiences and enrich your inner life and multicultural knowledge.
Record your journey
Keep a notebook where you record the activities and moments that bring meaning and purpose to your life. Over time, you will be able to look back and find patterns, getting more clarity about where your focus should be in order to experience meaningful moments more often.
After retirement, become aware of the new possibilities that are now open to you. Now that you have more free time and fewer responsibilities, you have more choice in terms of what you can do with your time. Transform the feeling of loss into a feeling of benefit by approaching each day with a sense of purpose, and deciding to do something meaningful.
Finding a sense of purpose, determining what our potential is and why we are here, is an individual journey that can combine anything that brings a sense of meaning and satisfaction. After you have identified ways to get meaning into your life, think about ways to use those activities/feelings as a more long-term project in order to feel purposeful.
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.
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.
To read more articles on senior mental health and lifestyle, visit our Help & Advice page.