People spend the better part of their lives being mothers or fathers, sisters or brothers, children and students, employees or employers and friends. They have defined roles, know what they need to do, when to do it and how to get it done. They wake up in the morning with a plan and a purpose, interacting with the world and maintaining relationships with people who count on them. But as retired seniors with grown children and a lot of time on their hands, what is their purpose now?
Do they work? Do they have friends who live nearby? Is anyone counting on them and do they have anyone to care for? For many seniors, the answer to these questions is no. They might be widowed; their friends are often living with a child somewhere else or might have passed away. Their children are busy with their own lives and do not need them in the same ways they once did. They may be retired and no longer drive. So now, when they wake up every morning, they are at a loss for knowing what to do with their day. Should they bother getting dressed? Is there anywhere they’d like to go? And even if there is, how will they get there? In a blink of an eye, they are suddenly isolated from the world around them.
A recent study regarding purpose across one’s lifespan determined that our sense of purpose peaks between the ages of 18 and 40, begins to decline between 41and 65, then drops drastically after 65. This is particularly sad, as people are living longer today and society has pretty much established that retirement itself should provide “purpose” for older adults—a domain that is not necessarily suited for meaningful goals and contributions. Physical health and well-being is another assumed “purpose” of our senior years, and while research from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center supports that people who have a greater sense of purpose in life are more likely to have slower rates of mental decline, retirement and good health cannot provide the full answer.
So what can we do? How can we help them redefine their purpose?
In my experience working with older adults, I have found that each and every senior, regardless of their physical or mental abilities, has something unique and meaningful to offer, but they might need some help identifying what that is or just need an opportunity.
We have all been taught to care for our elders and many of us take that to mean that we should do everything for them. If they want water, we fetch it; if they’re hungry, we prepare their food; we schedule their appointments and drive them there and back; and sometimes, we even speak for them. We often feel bad asking for their help because we don’t want to inconvenience or burden them. We do this out of love and respect, and because we think that is what they need, but we are actually infantilizing them—treating them like they are incapable of helping themselves and denying them the opportunity to help others. Like most of us, seniors want to feel needed and admired, that they can still accomplish things and make positive contributions. And most of all, they need to feel they are still worthwhile members of society.
In my role as Director of Senior Services at the JCC, I have two main goals for all our senior participants: keep them actively engaged and provide each and every one of them with a renewed sense of purpose. My team and I accomplish this in varied creative ways since our population’s skills and abilities are varied.
For some, we have the “Grand Friend” program, where seniors are paired to a nursery school classroom that they visit weekly to read books, tell stories or just play with the children. Seniors in this program have expressed how much they love coming to the JCC and for the opportunity to engage with these young children in their classes. It makes them feel important and special, and when they see each other in the hall, the children call out to them, addressing them Bubba or Poppa. They leave the JCC each day knowing they are part of a community that cares for them and feel proud and confident that they can give back and contribute in positive ways.
Other seniors find satisfaction by taking on other kinds of responsibilities, such as setting the lunch tables, writing out name tags or helping to lead an exercise group. If they are particularly talented in a certain area, we create opportunities for them to showcase their talent and refer to them as our special volunteers or friends. We ask them for their opinions, solicit their help and thank them for their contributions. We involve them in projects that allow them to give back to the community by having them pack snack packs for the Center for Food Action or sell lemonade to raise money for charities they feel strongly about. Many of these seniors have expressed their sincere gratitude for giving them these opportunities.
Some of our participants who are living with dementia feel so empowered by these activities that they actually believe this is their job and that they are getting paid. On several occasions, participants have stopped in my office asking if their paychecks were ready, and I respond by telling them it went into their direct deposit. Why? According to their caregivers, it improves their self-esteem. They feel empowered with a renewed sense of purpose. Other participants find their purpose in one of our specialty clubs like cooking, where they can prepare a fun food or dessert to share with the entire group, or flower arranging, where they can create their own beautiful bouquets to give to their loved ones.
These same ideas can be applied at home. Tell your loved ones how much they can help you by matching up the socks when you do a laundry, or suggest they help vacuum a room or set the table. Thank them when they do and reaffirm that they really helped you. Choose activities that you know they will be successful at. Suggest games they might enjoy and are good at, such as scrabble, or Rumi Cube or geography. And tell them how much they have taught you and how you still learn from them. It matters and will mean so much to them.
The common thread in all these examples is to provide engagement and purpose. Our senior loved ones want nothing more than to feel wanted and helpful. The mere act of giving provides them with enough purpose to improve their self-esteem, enhance their quality of life and keep them social, mobile and engaged. It means the world and is easier than we think.
If you are a senior looking for a place to get involved or someone with a senior in your life you think would benefit from participating in community activities, please call me at 201-408-1450 or visit jccotp.org/senior-services.
By Judith Davidsohn Nahary
Judith Davidsohn Nahary is the director of Senior Adult Services at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.