Help Older Loved Ones Grow Their Sense of Purpose

Senior man mentors piano students

"Who am I? Why am I here?" The search for meaning in life is something that sets us apart from all other species on earth. From our earliest years, we create a construct of the world and our place within it.

This quest takes different forms over the years. "When you are young, like in your twenties, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person. You are searching for meaning in life," explains Dr. Dilip Jeste of the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. "As you start to get into your thirties, forties and fifties, you have more established relationships; maybe you are married and have a family and you're settled in a career. The search decreases and the meaning in life increases."

Dr. Jeste, who also serves as Associate Dean of the UCSD Center of Healthy Aging, is especially interested in the ways older adults experience purpose in life. He says that a sense of meaning might be even more important in our later years.

And yet, this can be a challenging time! "After age 60, things begin to change," says Dr. Jeste. "People retire from their job and start to lose their identity. They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away. They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed."

Research shows that seniors with a sense of purpose sleep better, have lower rates of depression, and exhibit more of the cognitive reserve that protects the brain. A study from University College London revealed that when seniors feel that their lives are worthwhile, their lives are likely to be longer. And the extra years are marked by greater independence, as well.

Meaningful activities

Senior man in wheelchair with camera

"I'm just a worthless old woman." How heart-wrenching to hear such an expression from a loved one. If an older adult in your life expresses feelings of low self-esteem and purposelessness, help them seek out activities that can enhance meaning. For example, retirement can bring an abrupt loss of context. If it's feasible, your loved one might enjoy joining the growing number of retirees who are taking part-time jobs.

Volunteering is another great option. The American Medical Association says volunteering offers so many benefits that doctors should "prescribe" it! Numerous organizations in our communities need the skills and time that older adults can offer. Nonprofit organizations, hospitals, animal welfare groups and senior living communities could use your loved one's help. There is a volunteer opportunity for almost everyone.

Expressing ourselves through the arts is another great way to say, "This is who I am, and why I matter." Drawing, painting, singing and dancing help seniors creatively explore the issues and experiences that are important to them, while enriching the lives of others.

Joining a support group is another way to give back and make a contribution. A loved one who has been dealing with a health condition or other challenge may be able to offer valuable tips, information and inspiration to newer members of the group.

A note about intergenerational contact

Anthropologists think our species evolved to live so long because elders passed along advantageous wisdom and cultural inheritance to younger people. These experts say the impulse to give advice is hard-wired into older adults!

Yet today, it's not so easy for older adults to serve in that role. Age groups are more segregated, and seniors face age discrimination — as evidenced by that ugly, dismissive "OK, boomer" catchphrase. University of Toronto professor Markus Schafer pointed out, "While the average 65-year-old may well have more wisdom than the average 30-year-old, the latter typically has more opportunity for actually dispensing advice."

But mentoring opportunities are out there. Seniors are volunteering in schools and day care centers, and with scout troops and youth organizations. Very young children, especially, have a special affinity for older adults, who, in turn, offer patience and understanding – a win-win, indeed.

Meaningful thoughts

While the above activities help us feel that we're making a difference, the way we think about life is just as important as the things we do. Explains Dr. Jeste, "When you find more meaning in life, you become more contented, whereas if you don't have purpose in life and are searching for it unsuccessfully, you will feel much more stressed out."

How can seniors build that sense of contentment? Old age is a time to synthesize and review all that we’ve learned. Our philosophical pursuits can be as important as our activities! Here are some time-tested tips to help seniors explore those thoughts:

Become more active in gatherings where people discuss the meaning of life. This might be their faith community, meditation, or a philosophy class at the local community college or online.

Join a book group. These gatherings are very popular among older adults today, bringing people together and serving as a springboard for meaningful discussions. Groups are available through senior centers, libraries and senior living communities. Audiobooks and large-print editions make it easier for people with vision loss, and online book groups are a good solution for people with hearing loss or who find it hard to get out of the house.

Write a memoir. Putting our life story on paper can be a powerful tool to create a sense of self! If your loved one can't do this without help, younger family members could participate. Seniors with memory loss who can't recall the events of the day are often still able to access their older memories. Looking at photos and listening to music of their youth can spur recollection.

Family can help by being alert for occasions in family life when older relatives can feel needed. Help loved ones locate community opportunities, and provide transportation if needed. For seniors who are living with dementia, check out activities in the community that are adapted for people with memory loss. If your family uses in-home care, include the agency and caregiver as you make your plan. Home care doesn't happen only at home. The caregiver can accompany your loved one to their volunteer opportunity, provide help with grooming and dressing for added confidence, and even provide housekeeping services, should your loved one decide to host a book group at home.

Seniors have so much to offer! Help your loved one access their rich lifetime trove of wisdom at this time. You will gain as much as you give!


Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.