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Why Seniors Need a Purpose

By , 9:26 pm on

Love and work: the essentials of human life, according to Freud. Drs. John Rowe and Robert Kahn, in their book, “Successful Aging,” agree with Freud, concluding involvement in productive activities, along with close personal relationships, is key for active engagement with life.  Leaving love to the poets, let’s take a look at work.

Purpose is our reason for being, no matter our age. A baby’s purpose is to eat and sleep; a kid wants to have as much fun as possible.  Purpose continues to evolve for each of us as we move through life’s phases, waxing and waning and sometimes mystifying all around us. Just think of the person who seems to drift from job to job.

Purpose is what drives us to overcome challenges, like finishing graduate school. The University of Michigan found that purpose is so strong an influence, it acts as a protectant against stroke, even after accounting for traditional risk factors. Successful agers tend to have a laser focus; attributing their vitality to occupation and being needed.

Rose, at 83, actively volunteers in political organizations and runs an animal shelter in her big, old house. “I’m the only one who stuffs envelopes; what would they do without me?”

John, spry at 80, volunteers at church and tends an aging neighbor. “I get a great deal of satisfaction from helping others,” says John.

Carmen, also 80, teaches barbering, three days a week. He enjoys it because it keeps his mind sharp, his blood moving, and means he stays alert.

Engagement, for these seniors, means doing something for others and challenging the mind and body. Frank Stanton, chairman of CBS from 1946 to 1973, said this on retirement: “Don’t do it all with your left hand, give it all you’ve got—if you can’t find paid work, volunteer.”

Chronic illness can slow a person down, or not. Some people remain active in spite of functional limitations and chronic diseases.  Phyllis, another 80-year-old, had three heart attacks, major heart surgery, colon cancer, a serious fall and more.  Despite all that, she continued to perform as an actress and volunteer in the theater, when not “on the boards.”  She summed up her approach: “keep an interest in outer things, not inner ones.  Keep busy. Maintain more interests than there is time for.”

Rowe and Kahn reported that people are more likely to try new things when they believe they can perform competently in different situations. Productive behavior is also supported by one’s belief in the ability to influence events and control outcomes.  Interestingly, a positive sense of self can be created in someone who lacks it when 3 factors are present:

  1. An opportunity to pursue a challenge that isn’t so great it will overwhelm your sense of ability.
  2. Presence of supportive and reassuring other people.
  3. Experience of success and positive feedback from others.

Continue working for social engagement and active productivity, no matter your age.  The MacArthur studies, which formed the basis for“Successful Aging”, found about 80% of both younger and older adults, believe that “life is not worth living if you can’t contribute to the well-being of others.”  The same broad group believes that older people who no longer work [for pay] should contribute through community service.

My thoughts about purpose crystallized recently when I heard Bruce Springsteen’s 1985 hit, “Glory Days.”  He sings about a baseball player:

“…he could throw that speedball by you, make you look like a fool boy.”

Seems to me, life is the speedball—you’ll only look like a fool if you just stand there. If you swing and miss, at least you tried.


Lee Nyberg serves seniors through her company, Home Care Assistance.  Home Care Assistance is North America’s premier provider of in-home care for seniors.  Our mission is to change the way the world ages. We provide older adults with the help and care that enables them to live happier, healthier lives at home. For more information about Home Care- Assistance in Omaha, visit or call 402-763-9140.

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