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Senior Spectrum Newspaper
August 2018
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Senior Spectrum Publications

Adding Life to Years
by Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
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Purpose and/or Productivity in Retirement: A Perfect Storm or a Rainbow?

Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss

There are four real-life issues that people face as they move into a new life stage such as retirement: (1.) what’s my identity now that I’m not working? (2.) How do I honestly assess my continued competency and skill level? (3.) What issues should I be thinking about in regard to where I live and my living environments? (4.) How do I find the right “work” and be productive as well as achieve life balance?

Productivity is an overused word in many circles. Some businesses use it to justify having fewer employees doing more work. Government loves to tout any increase in the overall productivity of the economy. Efficiency experts write books about it and conduct endless seminars. But, what does productivity mean to someone who is retired or moving in that direction? Aren't retirement and productivity polar opposites, an oxymoron?

No, not at all. Some of the words that are part of the definition of productivity include abundance, fertile, effective, prolific. Aren't those adjectives that help describe a satisfying retirement? A few techniques to be more productive in retirement are:

On a similar level as productivity is the value of having a sense of purpose. Does purpose promote healthy aging? Why are we here? What is our connection to other people? What do we offer to our community and the world in retirement?

A Foster Grandparents program participant helps a grade school student improve her reading skills. Volunteering is one great way to build a sense of connectedness and purpose. The above questions might seem like abstract, philosophical matters, but research confirms that having a sense of purpose is vital for our health — especially as we grow older.

In 2009, Rush University Medical Center experts reported that people with a sense of purpose live longer. Lead researcher Patricia Boyle, Ph.D., said, "The finding that purpose in life is related to longevity in older persons suggests that aspects of human flourishing — particularly the tendency to derive meaning from life's experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal-directedness — contribute to successful aging." In 2012, Dr. Boyle and her team also found that a sense of purpose helps lessen the effects of Alzheimer's disease. Explained Dr. Boyle, "Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life — even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains." Since then, other scientists have confirmed the connection between a sense of purpose and healthy aging. Why is a sense of purpose so protective? Researchers believe it reduces stress, increases beneficial hormones in the body, lowers blood pressure and decreases depression. Goal-directedness promotes cognitive reserve — the extra brain connections that help us cope against dementia. And an even more simple mechanism was discovered by University of Michigan researcher Eric Kim: Seniors who report that their lives have meaning are more likely to take advantage of preventive health services, such as cholesterol tests, colonoscopy, mammograms and prostate exams.

It can be challenging to maintain our sense of purpose as we grow older, but, it’s never too late. Our children are grown, retirement removes a major life context, and ageist messages and derogatory media images of older adults can undercut our sense of worth. We may have lost our spouse. Health problems seem to occupy more of our attention, removing our focus from the big picture. But it's worth it to seek out purpose, at any age. Carleton University researcher Patrick Hill states, "Finding a direction for life and setting over-arching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose." He adds, "There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than young ones."

Here are some ways to nurture a sense of purpose no matter our abilities or health conditions that can make a difference:

What better way to add life to your years and in this case, years to your life, than to find your own way to create a rainbow through productivity and/or have a sense of purpose in retirement.

Lawrence J. Weiss, Ph.D. is CEO of the Center for Healthy Aging. Dr. Weiss welcomes your comments on this column. Write to him at larry@addinglifetoyears.com or c/o Center for Healthy Aging, 11 Fillmore Way, Reno, NV 89519.