Older adults with a greater sense of purpose exhibit better physical, mental health, cognitive functioning, and higher levels of life satisfaction. Unfortunately, sense of purpose tends to decline with age, often because of changes in social roles and declines in health; however, sense of purpose can be increased with appropriate intervention. For instance, purpose can be acquired through social relationships, community engagement, and setting goals. In a study that earned a Gold 2022 Innovative Research on Aging Award, researchers interviewed senior living residents about how they maintain their sense of purpose, in order to better understand how purpose can be maintained among older adults.
The researchers conducted interviews with 15 residents aged 60 to 95, within four different senior living communities. In each 30- to 70-minute interview, residents were asked a series of open-ended questions, including what “purpose in life” meant to them, its importance, and how it can be increased through different activities and care home initiatives. Analysis suggested that sense of purpose is linked to three main themes: experiencing loss, the protective benefits of social connection, and the role of activities.
Participants noted that their sense of purpose was associated with the extent to which they had experienced losses—such as losing a loved one, losing mobility, and losing independence. For instance, some residents expressed that each loss decreased their sense of control over their lives, ultimately impacting their sense of identity and purpose.
All respondents noted that their sense of purpose was associated with their ability to maintain social connections. Their sense of purpose especially increased when they felt that they were helping others or felt needed.
Residents felt a greater sense of purpose when they engaged in meaningful activities, such as learning a new skill or engaging in an activity with a goal to work towards. While some residents admitted rarely engaging in activities, they indicated their desire to participate in more appealing activities.
The study highlights the importance of helping residents remain socially connected and engaged, providing suggestions for how senior living providers can help.
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Owen, R., Berry, K., & Brown, L. J. (2021). ‘I like to feel needed, you know?’: a qualitative examination of sense of purpose in older care home residents. Aging & Mental Health, 1-7.