Finding a purpose after retirement
By Judith Graham, (c) 2017, Kaiser Health News
After making it through the maelstrom of middle age, many adults find themselves approaching older age wondering, “What will give purpose to my life” now that the kids have flown the nest and retirement is in the cards?
A story written by Kaiser Health News by Judith Graham notes that how you answer the question can have significant implications for their health.
She writes that over the past two decades, dozens of studies have shown that seniors with a sense of purpose in life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, disabilities, heart attacks or strokes, and more likely to live longer than people without this kind of underlying motivation.
Now, a report in JAMA Psychiatry adds to this body of evidence by showing that older adults with a solid sense of purpose tend to retain strong hand grips and walking speeds – key indicators of how rapidly people are aging.
Why would a psychological construct (“I feel that I have goals and something to live for”) have this kind of impact? Seniors with a sense of purpose may be more physically active and take better care of their health, some research suggests. Also, they may be less susceptible to stress, which can fuel dangerous inflammation, she writes.
“Purposeful individuals tend to be less reactive to stressors and more engaged, generally, in their daily lives, which can promote cognitive and physical health,” said Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who wasn’t associated with the latest study.
But what is purpose, really? And how can it be cultivated?
Anne Newman, a 69-year-old who splits her time between Hartsdale, north of New York City, and Delray Beach, Florida, said she’s been asking herself this “on a minute-by-minute basis” since closing her psychotherapy practice late last year.
Building and maintaining a career became a primary driver in her life after Newman raised two daughters and went back to work at age 48. As a therapist, “I really loved helping people make changes in their lives that put them in a different, better position,” she said.
Things became difficult when Newman’s husband, Joseph, moved to Florida and she started commuting back and forth from New York. Over time, the travel took a toll, and Newman decided she didn’t want a long-distance marriage. So she began winding down her practice and thinking about her next chapter.
Experts advise that people seeking a sense of purpose consider spending more time on activities they enjoy or using work skills in a new way. Newman loves drawing and photography. She has investigated work and volunteer opportunities in Florida, but nothing has grabbed her just yet.
“Not knowing what’s going to take the place of work in my life – it feels horrible, like I’m floundering,” she admitted in a phone interview.
Many people go through a period of trial and error after retirement and don’t find what they’re looking for right away, said Dilip Jeste, senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care at the University of California at San Diego. “This doesn’t happen overnight.”
“People don’t like to talk about their discomfort because they think it’s unusual. And yet everybody thinks about this existential question at this time of life: ‘What are we here for?’ ” he noted.
Newman’s focus has been on getting “involved in something other than personal satisfaction – something larger than myself.” But that may be overreaching.
“I think people can get a sense of purpose from very simple things: from taking care of a pet, working in the garden or being kind to a neighbor,” said Patricia Boyle, a leading researcher in this field and a professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“Even small goals can help motivate someone to keep going,” she continued. “Purpose can involve a larger goal, but it’s not a requirement.”