My late father had a longtime friend, a retired kosher butcher, who lived down the hall in their South Jersey apartment building. Past 90, Manny was older and frailer than my father; he leaned on a cane and could barely see well enough to recognize faces. But every morning, and again in late afternoon, he walked through my dad’s unlocked front door to be sure he was all right and to kibitz a bit.
Manny made the rounds, also looking in on several other aged residents in their so-called N.O.R.C. (naturally occurring retirement community). Unless he was ill himself, he never missed a day.
Manny’s regular reconnaissance missions come to mind when I read about purpose, which is one of those things we recognize without quite knowing how to define. To psychologists, “purpose reflects a commitment to broader life goals that helps organize your day to day activities,” Patrick Hill, a psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, told me in an interview.
It’s a hard quality to measure, so researchers rely on how strongly people agree or disagree with statements like these:“Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”
“I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.”
“I live life one day at a time and do not really think about the future.”
“I sometimes feel as if I have done all there is to do in life.”
So how can we help older people hang onto a sense of purpose if their strength and mobility declines and their dependence on others increases? I’d like to hear your ideas. Isn’t that one of the most dispiriting aspect of life in nursing homes or assisted living, after all — the sense some residents develop that there’s no reason to live? Older people can stay busy with activities and multiple medical appointments, but many feel that what they do doesn’t matter.
“They want to make a contribution,” Dr. Boyle said. “They want to feel part of something that extends beyond themselves.” Though what provides purpose in one’s life varies, merely taking care of oneself probably doesn’t qualify. People with purpose “have a sense of their role in the community and the broader world,” Dr. Boyle said. She particularly mentioned mentoring, passing one’s memories or experiences on to younger people, as a way to stoke a sense of purpose.