Creating a Life of Purpose

On: July 24, 2017

by Pamela Leland, PhD, Executive Director 

Several years ago I was talking with an older woman who was struggling with disappointment and sadness that she could no longer do the kind of volunteering that she had done when she was younger. She had spent much of her adult life doing various kinds of volunteering and now, as she struggled with various health issues including significantly poorer eyesight, the things she used to do were no longer possible. My role was to listen and offer my understanding and support; she also wanted me to help her find other ways to volunteer.

While this individual didn’t articulate these words, her struggle was more than finding a volunteer opportunity. The larger question was one of Identity and Purpose.

Finding our purpose is a question, a task, throughout our life. At each stage, our Purpose is presented to us:  We are young adults moving toward independence; we are newly married (or newly single); we are raising children; we are pursuing a career; we are caring for our aging parents. Our purpose is clear. For this older woman – retired, kids launched, declining health – she was trying to find her purpose when “who she was” and “what she did” no longer matched her past identity and activities.

Creating Identity and Purpose brings up specific questions and issues for older adults.  Identity and Purpose are wrapped up together and they arise naturally as we move through the life cycle. We are Brothers, Sisters, Mothers, Fathers, Husbands, Wives, Grandparents. We identify ourselves by our occupation – Teachers, Business Owners, Accountants, Priests, Lawyers, Factory Workers, Volunteers, etc. For older adults, these roles are no longer accurate or as relevant. Who are we when our children don’t need us? When we are no longer employed? When what we can do is limited because we no longer can drive or we no longer have the ability to undertake the physical tasks?

Yes, finding Purpose – creating a new Identity – as older adults has particular challenges. Fortunately we follow others who have encountered this struggle. Learning from others who have gone before, we can see the work that we need to do. Rachelle Williams of the Chopra Center offers the following guidance:

  1. Pay Attention. What makes you happy? Reflect on your life to identify when you were content and satisfied.  What elements or aspects in those times can you create anew at this time in your life?
  2. Change the Question. Rather than asking “What is my purpose,” try asking “Who is the person I want to be or become?” Shifting the perspective to the future can open up new ideas and new possibilities. It also helps to reinforce that we are the creators of our future.  We can (still) shape who we will become.
  3. Take Time for Stillness. Even those who are retired can fill their time with activities and noise … even if it is continuous television-watching! To forge a new future – at any age – it is important to take time for stillness and for reflection. Some might use the language of meditation or prayer to describe this stillness. Whatever language you might use, it is important to take time to allow the “still, small voice” to emerge with its invitation to new life.
  4. Take Risks. Williams writes that it is important to listen to Eleanor Roosevelt who said that we should “do one thing that scares you every day.” If we are to create a new Identity and find a new Purpose later in life, we must experiment! Taking risks is an essential element on the path to self-discovery.  Williams goes on to write that “Living beyond your comfort zone helps you embrace uncertainty and unlock true potential. If you say “yes” to projects, experiences, or activities that shake up your sense of security, that can lead to the discovery (and confirmation) of your talents.”
  5. Give Back. Another lesson from those who have gone before is to remember that our Purpose comes from focusing on others. Sharing your gifts and talents – in new ways and with new people – will lead you to your (new) purpose. Stop looking in the mirror and start looking outward. A well-accepted truism is that as we give to others, we will receive ten-fold.
  6. Take Action. Sometimes the hardest part of any journey is taking the first step. At some point, we have to stop talking and start doing. Finding a new purpose as an older adult won’t come to you. You have to create it. You have to take steps to make it happen. Williams goes on to write: “Many people live with the limiting beliefs they learned while growing up. Now is the time to let go of conditioned thought patterns and open up to new possibilities. Allow yourself to be conscious of what makes your heart sing and do that thing. You are stronger than you think.”

Many of us will live well into our 90s and more and more people are living past 100! What an opportunity – and gift – to realize that at age 60 or 75 or 90, we can re-create ourselves. We can find new and meaningful Purpose that fits within our own circumstances of growing older. George Eliot said it well: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

 Published in the Daily Local News, July 24, 2017