Finding Purpose and Meaning

The patient was nicely dressed and collected. They sat with elegance as I chatted with them during their checkup. By most accounts they were doing well. They didn’t have many aching joints or the other common issues of people their age. But, as we finished going through all the normal appointment questions and checklist items for a primary care visit, the conversation turned to the main issue at hand: meaningful existence. 

The patient had recently moved from the south to the north to be close to their adult children. In moving, they had left behind the hair salon where they’d worked for many years and where they continued to work until moving. Nobody in their new, northern community would hire them as a hairdresser because of their age. This disappointed them. They were very energetic. They were involved in many clubs and had many social engagements weekly, yet, they found themselves depressed, tired, and empty. Nothing they were doing gave them the sense of purpose that working had.

We brainstormed together. If not work, could the patient volunteer? Where might they like to volunteer? Our town had many opportunities for volunteering. The patient jotted down a few nonprofit ideas and smiled. They said they’d consider it; it seemed better that sitting around doing pointless things.

Depression is common in the elderly. Among other things, it’s postulated that feelings of isolation and loss of purpose can contribute to depression. On an anecdotal level, I’ve heard many elderly patients describe feeling alone, especially when they’ve moved to be close to adult children and left behind an existing community their age or that they had been part of for a long time. Even children who visit frequently aren’t the same as having a whole community – especially a community that has also lived through the same decades and seen the same changes in the world. What’s more, many elderly people are retired or decrease their activity in work and volunteering. It’s easy to say that retirement and less work is good and that these wise people have worked their whole lives and deserve a rest. This is true; however, what I’ve also noticed anecdotally among the hundreds of patients I’ve met as a medical student, is that the happiest people are the people who have meaningful projects regardless of age.

This elderly patient is an example of someone who was driven to work well after they reached retirement age. Their case showed me that perhaps encouraging and supporting our elders to be active participants in their community would be helpful for their wellbeing. This seems especially important in a place like the US where many families are scattered all over the country and generations tend to live separately. There are many elderly folks who find meaning in caring for grandchildren as I’ve seen in other places like when I lived in Paraguay. However, we must remember that there are many elderly people who didn’t have children or who don’t wish to spend their days caring for their kids’ kids and that their need for meaningful activities is also valid. As we forge forward as a society, it seems prudent to keep this in mind and continue to support and develop programs that help an aging population remain active in their communities’ productivity and progress if they would like to be. Be it work, volunteering, or other projects in and out of the home.