Now What? The Importance of Having Purpose as We Age
For many, one of the perks of age is the ability to retire. You worked hard all your life to earn your time to do whatever you want, when you want to do it. Yes, you EARNED it. Or, maybe memory loss, or other circumstance, has forced you to retire. What do you do with your time now?
It seems that simply doing nothing is not all it is cracked up to be. Low and behold, watching endless hours of television is not good for your body or your brain. And, this isn’t just about the benefits of being active. I’m talking about having meaning or purpose to your activity. Doing something that makes you feel like your life matters.
Don’t worry. This isn’t a post full of inspirational quotes or links to self-help websites. I can’t tell you how to give yourself purpose. I AM going to ask you to pause, and ask yourself, “Do I have a sense of purpose in my life?” and “Do I feel like I matter?” Yes, those are deep questions, and questions that many people find themselves asking when they encounter any life transition. Often, people find themselves asking those questions with retirement or with an acquired change in ability, like physical limitations or cognitive limitations from Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).
Why does this matter? Well, there is growing evidence that having a sense of purpose is linked to better health and well-being in older adults. The benefits to health are so great, that there is actually reduced risk of death when folks report higher sense of purpose! (Yes, that is during the duration of a study, so maybe it’s fairer to say delay in death. And, no, sense of purpose does not impact your taxes.)
Cognitively, individuals are less likely to develop MCI or Alzheimer’s disease when they report a strong sense of purpose. Further, those same researchers (from the Rush Memory and Aging Project) found that having a sense of purpose actually reduced the association between Alzheimer’s plaques in the brain and cognitive performance. Meaning: having a sense of purpose meant you could do better cognitively despite how much plaque was in your brain!
So, my appeal to the importance of you having a sense of purpose is not just about how happy you are or a general message that I want you to have a good quality of life. I DO want you to have those things. However, on a more basic level that maybe you never thought about before, having that sense of purpose can actually safeguard your cognition and health.
The irony here? Cognitive change from MCI can challenge your sense of purpose, or even take away the sense of purpose you once had (like being forced to retire early from meaningful employment or give up a volunteer/leadership position you loved). In actuality, then, getting the diagnosis of MCI becomes just the time when we need to strive to ensure that we have a sense of purpose. If what used to be your sense of purpose can no longer apply, find new sources of meaning in your life.
OK, indulge me with one inspirational quote:
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” - Nietzsche
How did you face a change to your sense of self-meaning or purpose? We’d love to hear!