Recently one of the older adults with whom I am privileged to work started a comment with “If I had known I was going to live this long . . .” He didn’t end it with the old line about “I would have taken better care of myself.” Instead, he said that he would have planned better; he would have thought more about what he was going to do with his life when he was 80 plus years old.
It sparked a longer conversation with both this man as well as a number of his contemporaries about what life is like and what life should be like as an older adult. We often talk about age being “just a number” but what does that really mean? How do we make those words meaningful?
Robin Sharma wrote that “The purpose of life is a life of purpose” and that concept is at the core of adding value to the lives of older adults. But what is purpose and how do we help our loved ones, and even ourselves perhaps, to find it? And how does purpose apply in the lives of those who are struggling with disease, disability and diminished abilities?
Purpose grows from a sense of values, from passion and from our priorities. When we think about what matters to us or we ask the older adults in our lives what matters to them, we are taking the first step in identifying purpose. I spoke with someone a few weeks ago who was telling me about the things she was doing in her new home in an assisted living facility. She talked about programs and book clubs and all manner of other activities. Yet my sense of it was that it was just a recitation and that she really was not engaged. When I asked her about her interests and the things she liked to do, the entire conversation changed. She became animated and enthusiastic talking about a course she had taken on nutrition. We started to talk about how she might use that knowledge in her new home and she began to see possibilities that excited her. Isn’t that how we all want to feel?
Because someone has reached the age of 80 or more does not mean that they cannot make a meaningful contribution; that they can’t still make a difference. We may need to help them, to facilitate or to just ask the questions and spark the ideas. Many of our older adults have wisdom to share and lessons to teach. They can work as volunteers in many capacities from ongoing community service to reading to children. I’ve known octogenarians who tutored ESL (English as a second language) students and did it brilliantly, helping these new citizens to be successful.
Where we fail, as family members, professionals and as a society is that we don’t ask the questions, we don’t help surface the passions and put them into action. We sometimes think that older adults have lived their lives, that they are now in a different stage of life and their “work” is done.
No matter what age or stage we are in, our lives can have meaning. I have watched individuals with advanced dementia help with volunteer projects that work to their strengths—like sorting school supplies for donation. I have seen our older adults serve meals at a community meal program, spend an evening having dinner and doing a sing-a-long with adults with developmental disabilities, bake and package cookies for Operation Thank You troops, be pen pals with high school students and so much more.
Take the time to find out what matters to the older adults in your life. Help them realize that their lives can still be filled with purpose—that they matter and what they do matters. Because it does.