When we hear the term “wellness,” it may conjure up the image of someone who is physically active and eating a healthy diet. Yet, wellness is so much bigger than that, and includes staying mentally and socially engaged in life, too. In fact, having a sense of purpose and meaning is a vital aspect of wellness.
Some people may struggle with maintaining their sense of purpose after retirement. Once they stop working, raising children or running a household, they may find they are less enthused about life. Instead of waking up excited about the day, they may have the nagging feeling that something is missing in their life.
In contrast, people who age with a strong sense of purpose often seem timeless, their zest for life almost contagious. That was true of Roxanne*. She moved to a retirement residence when she was in her late 70’s. Her husband had passed away three years before, and she had spent several years caregiving for him. When the intensity of grief lessened, she began to realize that her life needed a new focus. She had volunteered in her community for many years, but had to stop when her husband needed care.
Roxanne decided to “right-size” her living situation so she would be freed up to engage in new activities. She sold her home and moved into a retirement residence, and then actively began seeking a new focus for her life. That’s when Roxanne discovered Chartwell’s program, H.O.P.E. (Helping Others for Purposeful Engagement), which creates opportunities for residents to connect with their community. In turn, the program promotes a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. Residents can choose to give back locally or globally, and help make a difference by creating lasting community connections.
Roxanne has a special fondness for children; she has three of her own and five grandchildren. She also always loved being in the kitchen. For her it was a natural fit to join other H.O.P.E volunteers in preparing lunches for local kids in need. She loved the comradery with the other volunteers and found she was energized, not exhausted, after she finished making the lunches. She said she could picture the faces of the children when they got the meals, and it made her feel great.
Having a sense of purpose that includes doing things for others goes beyond making us feel good: it actually helps us stay healthy. Dr. Strecher, a professor and director for innovation and social entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, says, “It’s particularly important to have a self-transcending purpose, something that goes beyond yourself. There’s strong science showing that having a transcendent purpose helps you in changing your behaviors, in changing your life, but it is also good for your health.” Researchers have found that people who have a strong sense of purpose live longer and are less likely to have heart attacks or strokes. In addition, they found that those with a weak sense of purpose are 2.4 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those with a strong sense of purpose.
Whether or not it is for the good feelings, or for the notable health benefits, staying engaged if life and having a sense of purpose and meaning in your later years are key factors in overall wellness and happiness. That was certainly true for Roxanne. She found that retirement living provided her both the opportunities to stay engaged, and the freedom from day-to-day chores that had taken up a lot of her time and energy. Roxanne was able to find a new focus and passion once she was freed from the responsibilities that she didn’t feel contributed to her sense of wellbeing.
Today, when she runs into old friends, they comment about how happy and vital she looks. Best of all, that’s how she feels!
*Name has been changed for privacy
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.