Sense of purpose helps older parents, retirees

My youngest child will be starting ninth grade in the fall. Not surprisingly, she is quick to remind me that while she is glad that I am around, she is fine with a bit more distance between the two of us. While I do fulfill roles outside of the home, the job that I most identify with is that of caregiver to my children.

Now the rooms in the house continue to empty out and the shopping list is shrinking. And, while kids are finding their purpose, many of my cohorts are finding ourselves wondering what is next?

It is not only change in parental responsibility that can challenge feelings of identity and purpose. Even a planned life change such as a retirement may leave the recent retiree feeling unsettled and in need a reboot. While reframing one’s purpose may not be an easy task, it is a key component for successful aging.

A study from Rush University in Chicago found that people who reported having a sense of purpose in life showed a 30 percent slower rate of cognitive decline than those who did not. People who are purposeful have the opportunity to keep their brain active.

Conversely, geriatrician Linda Fried notes that people with age related health conditions risked a lack of improvement when they perceived themselves as being unable to discover their personal purpose. As she writes, “I have found that many of my elders suffered from pain, far deeper than the physical, caused by not having a reason to get up in the morning.”

There is overwhelming evidence that being proactive as able when anticipating change is a plus in helping to reduce the risk of health decline. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that time be spent well in advance of retirement thinking about how to fill the soon to be blank day planner.

Mark Chimsky, editor of the book “65 Things To Do When You Grow Up,” writes that retirement (should health and finances provide this opportunity) can be the time to pursue goals and deferred dreams. “Retirement,” he comments, “is no longer just about leisure-time recreation, it’s about re-creating ourselves.”

Some suggestions for finding meaning and purpose post retirement include exploring a second or “encore” career.

If employment is a necessity rather than a preference, it may be beneficial to explore the Senior Community Employment Program. SCEP is a paid training program for income eligible job seekers ages 55 plus.

Other options include volunteering, learning a new skill or hobby or serving as a mentor. This may be the time for travel, reconnecting with old friends and expanding opportunities for social interaction. Try something new.

If it is not a good fit, retirement offers the luxury to choose a different path.

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Marci Vandersluis is a Dayton area licensed social worker and aging life care professional. Email her at