Since elderly people may walk with a cane or appear frail, they’re often treated more like children than full-fledged adults. Younger folks jump at the chance to help, often doing things for them whether they like it or not. Though at times help might be warranted, it’s often based on perception rather than necessity, and that perception can rob older people of their independence. It also neglects a crucial aspect of healthy aging: a sense of purpose.
To thrive at any age, life needs to feel vibrant, and that means purpose should take center stage. In fact, numerous studies have shown that purpose is key to longevity.
In 2009, researcher Patricia A. Boyle conducted surveys with 1,238 seniors living in community for Rush Medical Center, and followed up with them for up to five years. What did her team find? People with a sense of purpose were 57% less likely to die during the follow up period than those without.
According to the study, “The finding that purpose in life is related to longevity in older persons suggests that aspects of human flourishing — particularly the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and goal-directedness — contribute to successful aging.”
Boyle conducted a subsequent study, in 2012, showing that a sense of purpose may slow down the formation of plaques that lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s important to understand the relationship between purpose and health as our population ages, especially since multiple chronic conditions are common among the elderly. Researchers in this 2014 study, published in the Lancet, followed 9,000 people over an eight-year period and saw that those with a sense of purpose were 30% less likely to die than those who did not find meaning in their lives.
Most recently, in May 2019, a study following 6,985 older adults showed that participants with purpose were less likely to die. This was especially true with adults dealing with heart disease, blood disease and diseases related to the digestive tract.
So how can we bring purpose to life? The way I see it, you need to get clear on what matters to you right now. What brings you joy? What lifestyle changes can you make to enhance your well-being? By starting to think about this now, you will be one step ahead as you age.
My mother, Adele, is a great example of what purpose can do. She is 96 years old and thriving thanks to a healthy, purpose-driven lifestyle. She’s doing acupuncture, physical therapy and pilates on a weekly basis. Her current mission is core training and she’s working with her physical therapist to strengthen and develop those muscles.
“Surrounded by people in an old age environment, I have become acutely aware and grateful for my physical and mental health,” Adele told me. “I am motivated to keep myself vibrant and working toward enjoying each and every day. I never thought I’d live this long, so now I am determined to beat the record completely and with my mind intact!”
The big driver for my mom is taking walks on the beach. With the sloping sand, it’s a real feat, but once she gets the hang of it, she turns it into a daily habit. I think the view and the ocean breeze make her feel connected to the world at large, and there’s a real joy in that.
Going back to the literature, while it’s not entirely understood how purpose affects longevity — does it decrease inflammation? Are people with purpose likely to have chronic conditions in the first place? — study after study shows that purpose makes a statistically significant difference.
No matter how old we are, the time to focus on purpose is now.