A Sense of Meaning & Purpose

Senior woman teaches little girl how to knit wool threads with spokes. Closeup image

By Jeannie Finnegan, CDP, Dementia Care Consultant and Educator

I have been speaking recently at several senior communities and at the annual LifeSpan Network conference about the importance for every person to have a sense of both meaning and purpose in life, including those with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. Caregivers, especially, can struggle with experiencing a loss of meaning and purpose outside the overwhelming demands of caregiving.

Just like our need for food, water, and sleep, our basic psychological and emotional needs extend throughout our lifetimes. These include, among other things, our need for:

  • Purpose and meaning
  • Connection with others
  • Contributing and accomplishing
  • Spiritual connection
  • Safety
  • Respect
  • Creating
  • Learning
  • Laughter
  • Affection
  • Love

Meaning and purpose often go hand-in-hand with feelings of empowerment, mastery, and control.  One major study of older adults between 55 and 85 years old showed that those who reported the highest levels of personal “mastery” — feelings of control over life events — had an almost 60% smaller chance of early death than those who felt relatively helpless.

Studies also show that a sense of purpose and meaning is fundamental to our health and well-being. According to Alan Rozanski, a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine who has studied the relationship between life purpose and physical health, the need for meaning and purpose is “the deepest driver of well-being there is.”

Recent studies add to a small but growing body of literature on the relationship between life purpose and physical and mental health. Rozanski published a 2016 paper in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, for example, that used data from 10 studies to show that strong life purpose was associated with reduced risk of mortality and cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks or stroke. The physical and psychological benefits also include the following:

  • Reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Is associated with a less rapid rate of cognitive decline
  • Increases immunity
  • Reduces stress and inflammatory hormones
  • Increases HDL or “good” cholesterol
  • Reduces anxiety and depression
  • Reduces fall risk
  • Combats loneliness

Conversely, a perceived lack of meaning or purpose is a common contributor to negative physical effects, as well as mental health difficulties, including depression, anxiety, lack of motivation, and alcohol/substance abuse.

Interestingly, it appears that it doesn’t really matter what your life purpose is, as long as you have one. For example, someone’s life purpose might be to help a charitable organization or to be a loving and supportive person for their loved ones. For another, it might be to travel or to build custom furniture. The idea is that the life purpose should reflect personal vision, values, beliefs, and goals.

While it is often the driving force behind our purpose, a sense of meaning in life transcends the temporal and answers the question, “Why does my life matter?” For many, their faith informs their meaning in life, i.e., “My life has value because God made me and has a plan for my life.”  For others, it might be, “My life has meaning because I believe every life can make a positive difference in the world.” It is also common to have periods of our lives when we struggle with the meaning of life.

Our sense of meaning and purpose will change throughout our lives, and will ebb and flow. If you are a family caregiver, much of your sense of purpose and meaning may naturally revolve around caring for your loved one. However, finding time to cultivate non-care related purposes is also important. Optimal self-care involves taking the time to care for your own needs, including devoting some of your time to your own hobbies, things you value, and your passions.  When you are in the midst of caregiving, the needs can be overwhelming, and you may feel that there is no time for anything in your life except caregiving. However, we all know how important it is to take care of ourselves so that we are able to continue caring for others. This may include learning to set boundaries and say “no” to some demands so that you can take care of yourself, or perhaps getting outside help.

But what about those with Alzheimer’s or dementia? Does a sense of meaning and purpose even matter to them anymore? While someone with dementia may no longer be able to express a sense of purpose or meaning in life, it is still a felt need and is important for their overall well-being and quality of life. Caregivers can ensure that those they care for can still engage in meaningful and purposeful activities that relate to what gave them a sense of meaning and purpose before their cognitive decline.

For example, if they were involved in their faith community, they would likely still enjoy hearing/singing hymns or hearing scripture read to them. If they were devoted to their career, they would likely enjoy activities related to that career.  For example, someone who collected or worked on cars could look through a picture book about cars or sort safe tools into a toolbox. Someone who was a homemaker would enjoy folding laundry, sorting socks, or organizing pantry items. The idea is to focus on activities that accomplish a task or goal and provide a connection to the person’s family relationships, hobbies, passions, career, and spiritual beliefs.

At Stanton Aging Solutions, we provide comprehensive dementia care training for professional and family caregivers, including how to create and implement meaningful and purposeful engagement for those with dementia. If you or your community may benefit, please get in touch with us at (410) 900-8811 or on our Contact Us page. For a comprehensive list of meaningful and purposeful activities you can engage your loved one in, please contact us at help@stantonagingsolutions.com.

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