Aging and Purpose

The New Movement in Positive Aging
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Quick, think of the words you most associate with growing older. Do wisdom, knowledge, and experience come to mind? Or does growing older conjure up images of loneliness, sickness, and uselessness? Sadly, for many older adults, the more negative words are the ones they associate with aging.

Americans traditionally have felt sidelined, overlooked, and devalued as they enter their later years. And these feelings are directly tied to an increase in anxiety, depression, and health problems, research shows.

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"Society tells us that this phase of life is a time of loss: loss of purpose, integrity, and meaning, leaving us to become a crippling burden on society and loved ones," says filmmaker David Carey, whose documentary Aging on Purpose focuses on just this subject. "But what if this phase of life is a time when we can, more than at any earlier age, fully discover our true sense of self and purpose?"

According to leadership coach Richard Leider, author of The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better, "Having a sense of purpose is what gives us a reason to get out of bed and greet each day with energy and enthusiasm." Put even more simply, purpose is, Leider says, "a reason to think our life matters."

The concept is so central to Leider's philosophy that he titled his latest book on positive aging Something to Live For: Finding Your Way in the Second Half of Life. "I've found that people do better, they're happier, they live longer, heal faster, and are more productive, when they have a sense of purpose," says Leider. "Find meaning, live longer, live better. That's kind of the bottom line."

And there's plenty of evidence for the connection between sense of purpose and physical and mental health. Patrick Hill, of Carleton University in Ottawa, studied 6,000 people over a 14-year period and found that those who had a positive attitude and strong sense of purpose and direction lived longer than people with less positive attitudes. Recent research at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center found that people who reported a stronger sense of purpose in life had a lower risk of Alzheimer's and dementia.

The good news: There's plenty of help available. As baby boomers turn 65 in record numbers, an entire movement is emerging to help older adults navigate their later years with a sense of meaning and value. Google "aging" and "purpose," and you'll quickly realize you've tapped a rich well of advice on how to move forward into the "next phase" of your life with a sense of meaning.

Cultivating a Positive Attitude

Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, has spent two decades studying the effects of attitudes on aging and health. What she found: Older adults who have a negative image of aging have significantly more health issues than those who associate aging with increased wisdom and value.

In one of Levy's most recent studies, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012, Levy demonstrated that older adults who associated aging with becoming "decrepit" and "useless" were more likely to suffer heart attacks and were less likely to recover from disabling health problems than older adults who had a positive view of aging.

Most important, experts say, we have a great deal of control over whether we view the changes associated with aging through a negative or positive lens. In his book Positive Aging, author Richard Hill argues that "happiness does not just happen" and that we have a responsibility to take control of our attitudes and actions and steer them in productive and positive directions.

"Our attitudes make a great difference in whether we see aging as a crisis or a quest," says Connie Goldman, former NPR reporter and author of Who Am I . . . Now That I'm Not Who I Was? "It's not so much what happens to you as how you deal with it."

Looking Outward

There's no faster way to feel more purposeful in life than to look outside yourself for ways to help others. But unfortunately, aging can have the opposite effect, turning us inward. As we grapple with health issues, decreasing energy, and loss of loved ones, it's easy to get caught up in our own trials and tribulations and end up focusing primarily on ourselves.

According to Richard Leider, this type of self-absorption causes "inner kill," a gradual withering of focus that he calls "the art of dying without knowing it." The antidote, he argues, is serving others, reaching out, and finding ways to contribute to a larger good. "The antidote for self-absorption," says Leider, is finding "a framework larger than our own lives" to inspire and motivate us. How to do this? "Give your time and talents away," Leider says. Find something you can offer, whether it's a skill, your time, your money, or all three, and contribute them toward something or someone who's important to you.

Leaving a Legacy

Many aging experts have studied and written about the importance of thinking about our legacy as we age. For some people, this takes the direction of some type of service or volunteer work. For others, it's something smaller, more intimate, some way they've made a lasting impact on the lives of others. Spending time with your grandchildren or great-grandchildren can be a legacy; so can planting an orchard or building a piece of furniture. According to the Active Aging project of the Canadian Government, "Your legacy could be the values and skills you've passed on to future generations with your teaching or parenting, or it could be a home you built, a stone wall you laid, a garden you nourished, a salmon creek you restored, a tree you planted, or a story you wrote."

In some places, government departments and other organizations have sprung up to help older adults implement their legacy aspirations. For example, the New Horizons for Seniors program gives grants of up to $25,000 to older adults who want to "give back" to their communities in some concrete way.

For others, a legacy may be most meaningful as something you leave your family, a record of your time and place on this earth. If you have parents or other family members who are moving into their later years, you can help them by encouraging them to work on a legacy project, such as writing their memoirs, recording an oral history, or making a lasting scrapbook or photo album that can be passed along to future generations.

"Give your time, talents, and treasures away," says Richard Leider. "Be a mentor. Before you pass on, pass on your legacy to the world around you." Ask yourself, Leider says, what you want people to remember about you when you're gone. "Your legacy is your message to the future. It can be a thing, a story, an act of love, a display of courage."

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio