What Gives Your Life Meaning and Purpose?

Aging expert advocates "purpose driven communities" as a way to promote more meaningful lives.

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Making a difference, doing something of value, and having a purpose in life. They all stem from a common human need that doesn't disappear with age. However, the perception that you're making a difference may well decline sharply after the end of a career, and the close of a professional life with decades of rich experiences and relationships. And as we get older, our self-perceived worth can take another hit if people have trouble looking beyond our age when they interact with us. All too often, older people aren't valued for what they can offer, and often aren't even expected to participate in activities.

[See 7 Tips for Finding Right Volunteer Work.] Kay Van Norman writes about aging and wellness and consults with retirement communities. In a piece in the current issue of The Journal on Active Aging, she notes that retirement communities have made great strides in becoming comfortable places for seniors to live. But, she says, opinion polls continue to find that people far prefer to stay in their own homes. They view retirement communities as places they "must" move to, not places they "want" to move to. Why is that? she wonders.

"If senior living priorities matched consumers’ priorities, shouldn’t senior living—with all its innovations—be more, rather than less, appealing?" she asks. "We know how to meet basic needs for shelter, food, safety, and personal care. Understanding how to meet other basic human needs is less obvious—the need to love and be loved, give as well as receive, be of value to others, and have feelings of competence and control."

Van Norman argues that attitudes toward the aged need to change just as we've changed the way we deal with disabled people. Once institutionalized and felt to be of little value to society, people with disabilities are now helped to participate in mainstream activities. But while this trend has evolved, she says, older people with disabilities are often expected to be passive observers of life who sit, literally and figuratively, on the sidelines.

"The disability movement strives to provide individuals with what they need to help them contribute to the community and be self-sufficient and self-responsible to the greatest extent possible," Van Norman says. "Why then should older adults with functional limitations be placed in environments where they are no longer expected to contribute to the greater community?"

Such "ageism," Van Norman feels, has negative effects on seniors' feelings of value and self-esteem. "Without feelings of value, competence and mastery, without meaning and purpose," she says, "what is wrong becomes bigger than what is right and what a person cannot do becomes bigger than what a person can."

[See 15 Top Office and Home-Based Jobs for Seniors.] Van Norman thinks one answer worth exploring is to better identify the human pursuits that give meaning to life at any age, and refocus retirement communities to provide these activities. She calls them "purpose driven communities," perhaps borrowing a page from evangelical minister Rick Warren, whose books include The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church. In Van Norman's use, however, purpose driven does not have a religious meaning so much as a needs-based focus on helping the elderly continue to find value and meaning in their daily activities.

Van Norman has a starter-set of suggested purpose driven communities:

  • Communities near or somehow connected to an animal shelter, recycling center, elementary school, boys and girls club, or food bank.
  • Housing complexes with organic gardens, where residents and staff could grow organic vegetables for the local schools, day care centers, food banks and hospitals, as well as for themselves.
  • A retirement community with a working farm, perhaps an organic farm or one that used historic farming techniques, so that seniors could not only raise crops but provide valuable teaching lessons to area schools.
  • Working partnerships with local groups in the community, including volunteer and awareness programs on the environment, education, political causes, children’s causes, animal causes, world hunger, and the like.
  • A retirement community that adopts a local school, providing a range of volunteer and mentoring services.
  • And beyond physical retirement communities, the Internet has spawned countless communities of interest. Seniors can access existing communities or start their own. Somewhere, sometime, there is always someone online who shares your passion and interest. What purpose driven community would appeal to you?

    [See How the 'Old Old' Can Have Best Lives.]

    Corrected on 10/23/09: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Kay Van Norman.