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Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age

Kara Lewis
By Kara LewisJuly 26, 2021
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Many people associate aging with the loss of common roles and responsibilities, including less time spent working, parenting, or completing chores around the house. While this newfound freedom can be exciting, it often presents an unexpected challenge — finding different and more personal ways of identifying goals and purpose.

Julie Farr, a counselor in Kansas City, Missouri, who specializes in working with older adults, acknowledges that this potential obstacle can also serve as an opportunity.

“Our culture is so oriented around productivity. After retirement, when we’re no longer connected with that, it’s very hard to adapt to our role,” says Farr. “While many people look forward to retirement and the empty nest, once the new wears off, this question comes up: ‘What’s the purpose of a life?’”

In examining their answers, seniors have a valuable chance to reconnect with and even redefine their interests and priorities.

“Both the problem and the gift is that it’s not going to just fall down on you,” Farr explains. “We’ve been fed so much by the systems we were expected to support. We didn’t necessarily have a lot of time to look inside and think: ‘What’s important to me?’”

Healthy, positive habits like exercising and socializing provide a strong foundation for finding meaning and happiness in old age. Along with seeking personal contentment, many seniors desire to pass down values and knowledge to their family and younger generations. When it comes to making this impact, each senior also has their own unique approach to using their skills and leaving a family legacy. Read on for information on how to incorporate mood-boosting activities into a senior’s schedule as well as to learn how how caregivers can support elderly family members in determining purpose.

Factors that lead to meaning and happiness in old age

Seniors are often happier than their middle-aged and young counterparts, according to a study of more than 50,000 adults published in “The Journal of Public and Professional Sociology.”

This promising research, conducted by professors at Texas Woman’s University, found a J-shaped relationship between age and happiness. In other words, while satisfaction dipped in the initial stages of aging, it quickly and substantially improved. Over time, self-reported happiness for older adults was 23% higher than among young adults and 37% above what middle-aged adults reported.

Variables such as good health, socialization, and serving in a volunteering or mentoring role increased happiness even more significantly among seniors.

Leaving a family legacy through mentoring

Oftentimes, the best way for seniors to achieve happiness and purpose lies in looking outside of themselves. Through this approach, they can pass down their skills and insights to future generations.

For family-oriented seniors, this may consist of creating a book of family recipes, teaching a grandchild how to knit or sew, or even digging into family history and genealogy. These activities offer an opportunity for leaving a family legacy and sharing family stories.

Seniors can also play a role in encouraging younger generations in the workplace, says Farr, whether that involves mentoring family members or new employees in their industry.

“Participating in growing young people is a wonderful way for elders to feel that the things they did in their life have purpose,” Farr states. “They might not be able to teach the technical skills, but they can talk about managing, organizing time, and cultivating work-life balance.”

In fact, by participating in mentoring, older adults benefit from both individual effects and more large-scale, societal changes, according to findings from the European Society for Prevention Research. This research found that intergenerational mentoring not only strengthened seniors’ social well-being and health outcomes, but it also led to lower rates of ageism in whole communities.

Maintaining physical health and quality of life

According to a 2019 study of more than 3,000 seniors, the strongest predictor of a high quality of life among older adults is physical health. Following this rationale, Farr encourages her clients to consider what they’re doing to protect and strengthen their own health.

“Supporting positive mood is a matter of engaging in healthy activities,” says Farr. She relies on the following checklist of healthy activities. Ask yourself, is your senior loved one:

  • Eating a balanced diet?
  • Getting enough sleep?
  • Keeping “mood-altering activities,” such as drinking alcohol, to a reasonable minimum?
  • Getting exposure to nature, sunlight, and vitamin D?
  • Exercising regularly?

Research from The National Council on Aging recommends that adults incorporate either 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise into their weekly routine. If your senior loved one lives in an assisted living community, they likely have access to some of the following group fitness classes and activities:

  • Dancing, including ballroom, swing, and square dancing routines
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga, including chair yoga for seniors with reduced mobility or injuries
  • Swimming
  • Zumba
  • Cycling or spinning
  • Nature trail walking

Adapting to challenges with positivity

Seniors’ expectations and attitudes have a powerful influence on their ability to find meaning and happiness in old age. An expansive survey published in the peer-reviewed journal “Public Library of Science” asked 3,400 adults to identify what strategies and tips most improved their feelings on aging. The most common responses included “ability to adapt,” “positive attitude,” and “appreciation.”

Many surveyed seniors described growing older as “living in a new reality,” one which requires them to adjust to natural effects like fatigue, frailty, and reduced physical strength. While seeing the positive elements in this situation may be difficult, it’s possible. Farr provides the following example:

“Let’s say a senior has had a fall. They’ve hurt their hip, they’re injured, and they can’t be as mobile,” she says. “On the other hand, they’ll have access to a physical therapist. Maybe they’ll develop a goal to strengthen that area, perhaps to be much stronger than it was before. This can also lead to new interests. For instance, maybe they’re going to continue that growth and try a chair yoga class.”

Similarly, this helpful practice of focusing on the positive over the negative can be applied to other areas:

  • If a senior has never used a computer or tablet before, it’s often a source of frustration or intimidation. Alternatively, new technology — such as a fitness tracker, video communication app, or a speaker for favorite music — can be “an opportunity to see a whole new world,” says Farr. This flexible attitude can add more joy to life.
  • Seniors may be uncomfortable or fall into boredom due to the extra time retirement provides. However, these unfilled hours can mark the perfect time to delve into new hobbies or rediscover old interests a senior has previously been too busy to enjoy.

Ultimately, new challenges will always be a part of the aging process. Learning to anticipate potential frustrations and to look for ways to learn from them can brighten a senior’s worldview.

Participating in fulfilling and social activities

Though older adults frequently struggle with loneliness, there are many ways to prevent social isolation in seniors. For example, Farr encourages her clients to schedule one social activity or outing each week. Caregivers can also help facilitate this regular socialization.

Of course, some alone time is a good thing, but arranging in-home care or helping your loved one find a social, inclusive senior living community can help keep the more negative impacts of solitude at bay. In particular, the wide range of assisted living activities available at these communities gets seniors out of their rooms and encourages them to form new friendships.

Older adults in senior living communities can expect to see versatile and interesting events on their calendar, such as:

  • Painting classes
  • Book clubs
  • Karaoke
  • Pool parties
  • Happy hours
  • Outings to concerts, sporting events, and local museums
  • Outdoor activities like picnics and trips to the farmers market

Participating in just one or a few of these activities will likely boost your senior loved one’s happiness significantly. A 2018 study of 411 elderly adults found that, on average, regular socialization enhanced contentment and well-being by 25%.

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Connecting with faith or spirituality

Faith and spirituality often inform and enrich someone’s entire worldview. If your elderly parent belongs to a faith, helping them find a church, synagogue, or mosque can assist them in finding meaning and happiness in old age.

For seniors who don’t consider themselves religious, spiritual practices like meditation and mindfulness promote happiness by inspiring seniors to stay in the moment, reduce their stress levels, and express gratitude. A “Public Library of Science” study found that older adults are more likely to identify as “spiritual” and are more likely to associate aging with a deeper reflection and self-awareness.

For seniors who take advantage of this newfound introspection, according to research published in the “Scientific Journal of Nursing, Midwifery, and Paramedical Faculty,” regular meditation can lessen self-reported anxiety by about 33%.

How caregivers can help seniors with finding meaning and happiness in old age

As one of the most significant relationships in an older adult’s life, a family caregiver may wonder how they can help their loved one find contentment. These four key steps represent simple and supportive actions to take:

  • Listen and validate. Meet seniors where they are and acknowledge their experiences. “Validation doesn’t always mean you agree,” says Farr. “It means you can empathize and say, ‘I can see why you’d feel that way.’”
  • Connect your family member to resources, then encourage autonomy. Many caregivers want to take on as active of a role as possible. While this approach comes with good intentions, it can have a counterproductive effect on seniors who are discovering their independence. Instead, Farr advises caregivers to connect older adults to their larger community and to other support systems. For example, caregivers can coordinate transportation to and from activities for their loved one, arrange visits with other family members, or find local events relevant to their loved one’s interests.
  • Look for positive examples and representation. “With the Baby Boomer generation being so large, they’re taking control of the dialogue around aging and refusing to be cast aside,” Farr says. “There are more and more role models of healthy, meaningful living. We can point our elders toward seeing what’s possible.” Suggesting positive, entertaining books or movies that feature older adults — as well as pointing out seniors’ everyday successes — helps send the message that aging should be celebrated.
  • Help with goal-setting. Ambition is an important part of staying motivated and continuing to grow. “One of the strongest indicators of hope is having goals,” emphasizes Farr. “And having multiple goals is better than a single goal.” Though traditional milestones like performance reviews and achieving at work no longer exist in retirement, seniors’ natural drive can now be applied to things like walking each day, learning a new recipe, or taking an art class.

Sources:

Blog of the Early Careers Forum of the European Society for Prevention Research (EUSPR). Volunteer and healthy aging: the case of mentoring disadvantaged youth.

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The Relationships between Physical Activity and Life Satisfaction and Happiness among Young, Middle-Aged, and Older Adults.

The Journal of Public and Professional Sociology. Are Older People Really Happier Than Younger People?

Korean Journal of Family Medicine. The Association between Social Support and Happiness Among Elderly in Iran.

National Council on Aging. Get the Facts on Healthy Aging.

PLoS One. What does quality of life mean to older adults? A thematic synthesis.

Scientific Journal of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedical Faculty. Effects of Tai Chi on Anxiety Among Elderly Women.

Kara Lewis
Author
Kara Lewis

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