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Purpose in the Third Third of Life: Notable Recent Research

September 2, 2022 • Third Third Journal

If you’re familiar with the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative, you know that our work is based on Scripture and shaped by insights from academic research in a variety of disciplines (gerontology, psychology, neuroscience, sociology). I try to keep stay up to date with research in these fields, a task for which Google Scholar is invaluable.

Recently, I used Google Scholar to help me find academic articles on purpose and aging. I was especially interested in articles published in the last couple of years. Google Scholar identified 9,090 results. As you can imagine, I didn’t scan all of these! But I did look at the top 30 articles, identifying several that I wanted to read (or at least read in abstract form). Here’s a summary of some of what I found:

Older adults recall memories of life challenges: the role of sense of purpose in the life story,” Current Psychology, July 2022.

Documents the importance of purpose for older adults as reflected in the stories they tell about their lives.

Purpose in life and performance of advanced activities of daily living among the oldest old,” Revista Berasileira de Geriatria e Gerontologia, May 2022.

“PL [purpose in life] may have an impact on complex levels of functional status in the elderly, thus contributing to healthy aging.”

The Role of Purpose in Life in the Relationship Between Widowhood and Cognitive Decline Among Older Adults in the U.S.,” The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, March 2022

“Higher purpose in life buffers against the detrimental effects of widowhood on cognitive functioning of older adults.”

Purpose in Life May Delay Adverse Health Outcomes in Old Age,” The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, February 2022.

“Purpose in life increases dementia-free years and longevity, suggesting that interventions to improve purpose in life may increase healthspan and offer considerable public health and economic benefit.” (Note: Healthspan is the period of life in which a person is healthy, something we might value even more than lifespan.)

Sense of purpose in life and healthier cognitive aging,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, November 2021.

“Individuals with a greater sense of purpose maintain better cognitive function and have lower dementia risk.”

Reimagining Senior Centers for Purposeful Aging: Perspectives of Diverse Older Adults,” Journal of Applied Gerontology, March 2021.

“Senior centers serve countless older adults, yet considerable changes in demographic diversity, technology, and a focus on quality of life require that centers update programming to facilitate purposeful aging in the 21st century.” Additionally, this study found that “making a difference” had the highest number of mentions in focus groups of older adults talking about their future goals and aspirations.

Perceived barriers and contributors to sense of purpose in life in retirement community residents,” Ageing and Society, December 2020

“Another noteworthy theme was the considerable number of participants (44.4%) who expressed the belief that having a purpose in life was not applicable to older adults. Several participants seemed to have particular difficulty describing their current purpose, asserting that most goals at this point in the lifespan are limited to trying to stay healthy.”

These recent studies confirm previous research, finding that having a sense of purpose in life contributes to healthy aging. In particular, purpose supports cognitive function and lowers the incidence of dementia.

I was particularly impressed by the learning found in the “sense of purpose in the life story” research. For example, researchers Shubam Sharma and Susan Bluck found the following (italics added):

As older adults shared about how their purpose had developed and how they fulfilled it, many mentioned that shifts had occurred in their purpose over their lifetime. Through various life experiences, including with their career and family, many found positive changes occurring in regard to how they lived their purpose. . . .

One factor that contributed to development of purpose for older adults in the current study was experiencing particular life-phase specifc events (e.g., changes in vocation, retirement, age-related health problems). Older adults’ narratives revealed how these life events led to shifts in the development of their sense of purpose . . . .

Many older adults in the current study recalled how others in their life positively contributed to the development of their purpose. Older adults reflected on how the behavior and religious ideologies of their parents, grandparents, and other role models contributed to their own purpose. . . .

This confers with qualitative research showing that, even later in life, individuals describe making a difference as an important element of their future aspirations (Liao & DeLiema, 2021).

For some, loss of purpose may indeed be a concern. For example, a recent qualitative analysis of retirement community residents showed almost half expressed that having a purpose in life is not applicable to older adults. Purpose in later life was viewed as limited by health and the imminence of death (Lewis et al., 2020).

By listening to older adults tell their life stories, Sharma and Bluck documented changes in purpose that happen as we get older. For many, these changes were seen in a positive light. Others older adults, however, viewed having purpose in life as irrelevant to people their age.

All of this research points to the importance of purpose in the third third of life and the opportunity to help older adults clarify, sustain, and live their purpose. This will help them flourish as well as fulfill their goal of making a difference in the world.

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