Purpose and relevance

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At many talks I’ve given to older audiences on the joys of active ageing, two of their most common and worrying concerns were a lack of purpose and feeling irrelevant.

A sense of purpose substitutes for the depression of feeling irrelevant. Doesn’t matter what it is. But you need a reason for getting out of bed each day. You need a purpose.

Waking up each day with nothing much to live for or to enjoy is rather a bleak commentary on the lives of some folk. A purpose doesn’t have to be dramatic, or flag-waving, or life-changing. Purpose is something that you plan for each day, that has a consequence, such as the joy and pleasure for other individuals. It can be as modest as taking responsibility for a meal, either over a period of time or the occasional one-offs such as Sunday lunch. If the family visits their older relative, there’s planning on who’s coming, what’s the menu, how the house will be prepared, and the conversation. That’s purpose, and it is no less admirable than decisions made by heads of state. The purpose is to prepare for a task at hand, one that benefits other people than yourself.

Anything will do. It does not have to be a high-profile charity. But an interest or helping a friend, or family member or spouse, is good. Tending a garden to have the joy of the beauty of flowers or fresh vegetables you can share is an achievement to satisfy. Feeding the 5000, even when there are only two, is a serious purpose. Hobbies, volunteering, travel, biography, sports, anything. Make it your own. Religious communities. Generate joy and satisfaction. Engage in your community.

My father, aged 99, enjoyed a glass of malt whisky around 5 p.m. each day. Long back in his past, he had visited many of the Scottish distilleries and recalled them as if they were personal clubs. He had his chair, someone to talk with; he lived in a retirement village and was an interesting character. Carers or residents from the village where he lived would come in often while he enjoyed the scotch. My mother was a couple of years younger at 97, and less of a conversationalist. But during the day my father would think of people he might like to talk with, and he looked forward to his glass of whisky. Cheekiness abounded, and all was well with the world. Modest though it was, that was one of his purposes, but a treasured one.

If you have an elderly friend who complains, as many do, of their little purpose in life, encourage them to boost their personal relationships, to join a club, to attend a religious community, to identify some books that may support their personal attitude to life, and talk about it. Irrelevance is a very negative attitude as a consequence of lack of purpose.

As we strive towards an active and happier old age, we always need the stimulus of purpose, particularly one that brings joy to others.

From Ageing Well: How to Navigate Life’s Journey in Your Later Years by Dr Doug Wilson, published with permission of Calico Publishing. $39.95 calicopublishing.co.nz

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