Why do you get out of bed each morning? Often, it’s because you have things you need to do — a job, a loved one to care for, a purpose.
But as people age, they often have a harder time feeling like life has a purpose. Older adults often endure a cascade of losses, from friends and a career to the ability to drive and take care of themselves. A common trap seniors fall into is believing that they’ve already experienced the prime of their lives and that the time after retirement is just one long, steady decline.
When Seniors Lack a Sense of Purpose
Perhaps you’ve noticed changes in your parent’s mood, that they don’t participate in activities they once did, or they lack the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. Or maybe you’ve even heard them say, “Life isn’t worth living,” “I can’t do anything anymore,” or “I’m no good to anyone now.”
Not only are these expressions simply not true, but they can also have a disastrous effect on your loved one’s overall health and wellness. Researchers analyzed data from nearly 7,000 American adults and found that people without a strong life purpose were more than twice as likely to die between the study years of 2006 and 2010, compared with those who had one.
When an older adult without a sense of purpose moves into a Highgate community, Executive Director of Highgate at Flagstaff Leslie Blum can tell: “When someone stops living a life of purpose, you see isolation, you see depression or sadness. You could see a change in their physical abilities because they’re not getting out and walking as much as they’d used to. They’d withdraw from pretty much everything. It affects all aspects of their lives.”
People Age Better If They Have a Purpose In Life
On the other hand, people who have a greater sense of purpose in life are more likely to have slower rates of mental decline, decreased mortality, and increased happiness in old age. For example, in a study of 7,135 older adults, participants who volunteered for 100 or more hours per year experienced a 63% decrease in decline of physical function in contrast with those who did not volunteer.
That’s because having a sense of purpose is part of spiritual and vocational wellness, two of the eight dimensions of wellness. Each part of wellness is interconnected. When your loved one thrives in one area, other areas will thrive, too.
“We live our lives each day with purpose, and it should be no different for our seniors,” Blum says. “While our purpose may change as we get older, we continue to have interests, passions, people, and things that are important to us and keep us living life to the fullest extent. It is important to keep our seniors engaged in the pursuits that give them purpose so they continue to thrive and do not feel the pangs of loneliness or unhappiness.”
How to Help Your Aging Parent Find Purpose
As Executive Director of Highgate at Flagstaff, Blum sees it as Highgate’s purpose to help residents find their purpose. For that, she relies heavily on Life Enhancement Coordinator Abbigaile Urioste. Commonly known as the activities program at other senior living communities, Highgate’s Life Enhancement Programming empowers residents to live a life of purpose each day.
“Purposeful living, to me, is living a life and making choices that align with what feeds our soul,” Urioste says. “That deep fulfillment can be felt in reaching a big goal or a short moment of mindfulness and can vary person to person, day to day. Purpose can be found in our work, expressing our creativity, connecting with others and especially ourselves. Purposeful living is at the heart of everything we do at Highgate and helping our residents live their lives to the fullest each and every day.”
So how do you help your parent find purpose as they age? Urioste offers these six tips.
1. Encourage Independence
“Don’t underestimate what your parent can still do for themselves,” Urioste says. “Find ways to modify their daily routine so that they can continue to do the things they want and love while empowering them to remain independent when possible.
For example, if cooking a specialty meal requires more than the normal steps, ask your mother to help you prep the vegetables or set the table, versus simply making the dinner for her.
2. Give Back
Help your parent find ways to give back to their community. “Write letters to local first responders, make blankets for the homeless, donate gently used items to charity, volunteer at church, read to young children,” Urioste says. “The possibilities are endless.”
3. Stay Active
“Movement is medicine and a key to our physical and mental health,” Urioste says.
So encourage your parent to stay physically active: Go for daily walks together, do chair exercise, go swimming, play balloon volleyball, have a dance party, or practice balancing and posture.
4. Try New Things
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘I’m not a painter,’ before watching a masterpiece unfold in front of my eyes,” Urioste says. “We underestimate our abilities and the joy we get from trying new things and mastering new skills. As we age and evolve, so do our interests and hobbies. Don’t be afraid to try new things.”
5. Be Social
Help your parent find opportunities to connect with others. “Maybe it’s a daily walk where you stop and chat with the neighbors, an afternoon tea date, FaceTime with the grandkids — no matter the activity, social interaction is vital to our happiness and well-being,” Urioste says.
“Reflecting and sharing past experiences can jog memories and reconnect us to a feeling and sense of purpose we experienced in those moments,” Urioste says. “Go through old photo albums, discuss historical events, explore your family history, and listen to old songs.”
How Highgate Helps Seniors Find Purpose
As coordinator for the Life Enhancement Programming at Highgate at Flagstaff, Urioste’s job is to get to know each resident’s life story and to build an ever-evolving Life Enhancement Program that empowers them to live a life of purpose each day.
“Upon move-in, every Highgate resident will participate in a Purposeful Living interview, which is designed to highlight what lights them up and fuels their passion,” she says. “It is these conversations that shape the core of our Life Enhancement Program. Our calendar will reflect the interests and passions of our residents, and each day will offer the opportunity to engage mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually. My goal is to create experiences that bring our residents joy and meaning as they try new things, make new friends, discover new interests, and develop new skills.”
To learn more about Highgate at Flagstaff’s Purposeful Living Program, as well as our other signature programs, including our Holistic Approach to Wellness and Nutritious, Delicious philosophy, download our Signature Programs Fact Sheet