Preserving Our Sense of Purpose During the Pandemic
Older adults are at highest risk of serious COVID-19 illness. But while social distancing is the best way to protect against exposure to the coronavirus, experts warn that it has led to an epidemic of loneliness among older adults—and many report feeling a loss of purpose in life.
Everyone wants to feel as if they make a difference in the world. Yet even under normal conditions, this can present a challenge for seniors. As we grow older, we retire from our jobs. Our children are grown, maybe moved away. Disabilities might reduce our ability to take part in meaningful activities.
This is a serious problem. Studies show a sense of purpose is linked with:
A healthier brain. Prof. Patricia Boyle of Chicago’s Rush University noted that purpose in life could protect against dementia by building stronger “cognitive reserve”—the robust brain connections that delay dementia.
A stronger heart. Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital researchers reported better heart health in people who feel useful to others, because it helps our bodies weather stress and motivates us to live a healthier lifestyle.
A longer life. Prof. Andrew Steptoe of University College London said that a meaningful life could promote a longer life. “There are several biological mechanisms that may link well-being to improved health, for example, through hormonal changes or reduced blood pressure,” he explained.
More years of independence. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that people who felt a sense of purpose in life were more likely to retain good physical function and independence.
Better sleep. Northwestern University experts found that purpose in life improves overall sleep and lowers the risk of sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia—and might even be as effective as sleep medications.
Seniors are urged to seek out activities that provide a sense of purpose. To stay connected, some take a part-time job after retirement. Some who live in senior living communities are active in committees and clubs. And our schools, charitable associations, nonprofit organizations and hospitals simply couldn’t function without the seniors who put in millions of volunteer hours each year!
Yet now, suddenly, many of these activities that gave our lives so much meaning are off-limits. It’s no wonder that many older adults report feeling depressed, with lowered sense of self-esteem. Fortunately, opportunities for meaning-based activities are still available. Help older loved ones check out these options:
Volunteer … at a distance. Older volunteers can share their talents and knowledge online, or if the doctor says it’s safe, out of the home while taking precautions. If you are tech savvy, be sure to help older friends and relatives learn the ropes of video conferencing and other technologies that have come to the forefront so much in 2020.
Clubs and groups have moved online, too. There are Zoom book groups, craft clubs, board game teams and committee meetings. Many faith communities are convening virtually. Even choirs and other arts associations are getting together in this way.
Time to write your memoir. Putting our life story on paper is a powerful tool for creating a sense of who we are—and a treasure for the next generation. Maybe you finally have enough time for that! Or you could help a loved one write about their reminiscences, even from afar.
Connect the generations. Have regular phone or video chats with an older friend who lives alone or in a skilled nursing facility. And don’t forget the kids! Yes, schools may be closed, but there’s more need than ever for online tutors. Read to the grandchildren, or just “hang out” on a video chat. (Their parents will probably be quite grateful for the break!)
Go back to (virtual) school. Learning something new enhances our sense of meaning. If there is a silver lining to this period of social distancing, it’s that many universities, libraries, senior centers, arts organizations other “brick and mortar” organizations now offer virtual classes and programs. Some universities even offer online degree completion programs.
A note for everyone: ask an elder for advice!
Despite the stress our oldest community members are going through, reports are that many are resourceful in weathering this time. How do they do that? Ask them! Seniors have lived long enough to experience a lifetime of challenges and have a lifetime of wisdom saved up—and yet, say experts, today’s older adults have few opportunities to give advice.
Said University of Toronto professor Markus Schafer, “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.”
Schafer conducted a study which found that seniors who are able to share advice are more likely to feel their lives have meaning. In other words, he said, “It matters to matter. It is important to feel that one is meaningful, consequential and can have influence on other people in various ways.”
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about practicing safe social distancing at this time.