Purpose is said to be the reason for which something exists. What about you and me? Our intentions seem to change as we age.
In earlier years, our purposes may have been making a marriage, raising a family, building a career, becoming a writer, artist, musician, chef. But now our purposes are no longer defined by the roles we used to play. Many of us are searching for new and different meanings as we grow into our later years.
I’ve just spent three-plus weeks recovering from sinus surgery in Denver away from my life, my house, my people, my environment. Even though I was paying attention to the life I was in up there and appreciating the very small things that got me through the long days, I became keenly aware of my life here and the parts of it that feel purposeful and rich.
In Erik Erikson’s stages of development, during this time in our lives, we are supposed to contemplate our accomplishments and develop integrity if we see ourselves as having led a successful life. If we see our lives as having been unproductive, we become dissatisfied and develop despair, depression and hopelessness. This seems not enough anymore. Having possibly many years ahead of us, we are looking at purpose and meaning for our lives now, even though that may look different than it did at 30, 40 or 50.
“What makes some people seem to stop living in old age, and others to hum along with no visible loss of energy?” asks Karl Pillener, who specializes in life-span development at Cornell University. He says those who are more engaged in the world, tend to be more resilient. A long-term study of more than 1,400 older people found those who felt their lives had a goal or purpose showed lower rates of memory loss and other diseases associated with old age.
Examining the brain tissues of 246 people who died during the study, it was found that the brains that functioned better belonged to people who had indicated more purpose in life in earlier surveys. Having a purpose appeared to increase the reserve that brains can call on before they start to break down. The stronger the purpose, the more it adds to the reserve.
As more worldly roles fall away, it feels like our purposes are not about accomplishments so much anymore. This is the time for more reflection and inner work. We don’t need to write the novel or train for the marathon, but maybe we can write family stories to leave our kids or start a healthier lifestyle or spend more time with grandchildren. Slowing down and drawing in can still include purpose and goals, and can lead us to some of the richest gifts that aging has to offer.
So, who are we now? Where are we? How does it all make sense? This is good inquiry into the soul. Perhaps it’s important to build time into our lives to consider these deeper questions, attend to feelings that are changing and try to awaken to the wisdom within us.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.