A sense of purpose.
We all need a sense of purpose and we forget that this need does not go away as we age. Yes, the social interaction provided by Assisted Living (AL) communities does on some level, provide a sense of purpose, but it is not enough. Activities like bingo are beloved by many residents, they enjoy afternoons of music and arts and crafts can be a fun way to spend time. But, I would argue activities do not give a sense of purpose to lives.
Now, I am fully aware that asking an AL community to base activities on each resident’s sense of purpose is not possible given the amount of people and the amount of time it would take to tailor one for each person. Nor in fact, do I think it is their job. It is, however, something family members, churches and high school internship programs can bring to the lives of our elders.
But how about if we create groups of people who share similar purpose needs? How wonderful would it be if during the intake interview, new residents were asked “what gives your life meaning and a sense of purpose?” Most people could not articulate it very easily, but it is an important question and a family member may be able to help tease it out.
If volunteering was important to them, then let’s make the art activity something they make and give away, like baby blankets or hats. If education was important to them, then the opportunity to help a younger person who is struggling with English or math can give them back their sense of purpose. On those periodic shopping trips, include a list of items needed at the local food pantry or shelter. It would allow them to help someone else instead of always feeling like they need the help. How lovely to take what everyone has purchased and package it up in a basket with handwritten notes about themselves. Then have someone from the program pick it up and highlight who the donation helps. It gives the organization a chance to get the word out and it gives residents a sense of purpose.
My “Aha” moment around this need came to me when my mother said, “I wake up in the morning and think, Oh, I have to… and then I realize I am not home and I can’t.” Her “I have to” might have been to make banana bread from all the over ripe bananas she stored in the freezer, soup from the left-over ham bone or marinara sauce which was a staple in our family refrigerator.
This comment brought home to me in a new way that mom’s sense of purpose came from bringing people “to table” not just to eat, but to share stories and connect in rich and meaningful ways. The ability to bring people together in THIS new home, was something I could do. Afterall, fellowship and food were mom’s love language and as her daughter, I could try and give this back to her.
To that end, just before she died, we hosted Thanksgiving dinner in the private dining room of her Assisted Living community for three other residents. Like old times, we planned the menu together and I even made our family’s much beloved carrot salad, one of our Thanksgiving traditions, in her room, with her help.
We had our Thanksgiving meal and a wonderful time together. As I worked in the kitchen, I could hear the women sharing family stories, recipes and their happiness at having this time together. Mom was so relaxed and happy that night when we went back to her room. She was like her old self again. At the time, I did not realize how important renewing this sense of purpose would be for mom.
Four days after Thanksgiving, mom died unexpectedly and peacefully, and food and fellowship were a recurring theme at her services. Person after person got up to share a memory of how welcome they felt in our home and how often mom would invite them to stay for dinner on the spur of the moment. Many friends of mine and my brother’s shared how our mother was like a second mother to them.
And then three days after we buried mom: I got this text from my brother.
Tuesday, 8 AM
I had a VERY strange dream last night. I was giving that eulogy again Friday night, and in the dream it went on. I had an “A Priori” moment when information enters through the mind like a realization. Well in this dream, I realized that Thanksgiving dinner was very important, because it was when mom became Doris again by inviting everyone that needed it to come to the dinner table like old times. A major theme on Friday and Saturday. I think God needed to see that her soul had been restored and that now (and only now) was she ready to join daddy. Oh, and make no mistake about it, he carried her over the threshold of Heaven. I woke up weeping.
I am weeping as I type this, and I am at peace with her dying and our relationship.
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.
Deb is the author of “Your Caregiver Relationship Contract and “A Relationship Contract for Dementia Caregivers.” Your Caregiver Relationship Contract is available in both English and Spanish. It explains how to have an intentional conversation and the how unspoken expectations can cause problems during caregiving. A Relationship Contract for Dementia Caregivers explains how important it is to learn how your person wants to live their live out and how you, the caregiver is the most important person in this relationship, giving you tips and tricks for this journey.
Click here to learn more about Your Caregiver Relationship Contract or here for the Spanish version: Su Contrato de relación como cuidador de un ser querido. Click here to learn more about A Relationship Contract for Dementia Caregivers.
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What a beautiful reminder. This brought tears to my eyes remembering my grandmother who, as a widow, made all of our tiny milestones matter as we were growing up. Our happiness became her purpose. We all seek —and deserve— a purpose-driven life. Thank you, Deb
Debra Hallisey says
What a beautiful memory of your grandmother. She sounds like an extraordinary woman living an ordinary life and there is nothing better!
Deb Compton says
Excellent article full of truth that we all need to be needed.Thanks for suggesting this to communities. Love it!
Debra Hallisey says
Thank you Deb for your kind words. I will continue to advocate for our elders in these settings, reminding communities of the need we all hav an any age for a purpose driven life.
Rayna Neises says
Deb, I couldn’t agree more. Purpose is a core need without a doubt. I think it is a need overlooked no matter where a loved one lives.
My Aunt is in an assisted living facility and she has always been a person who serves others. She uses her BINGO tickets from winning to purchase items she can donate (gloves, hats, socks). I love that she is making a way to give even when the environment is not providing one.
Thank you for bringing this need out for more conversation!
Debra Hallisey says
Living a life with purpose is important at every age. I love that you Aunt has found a way to continue to live out a life of service by using her Bingo winnings to help others! And that she is doing this in spit of the community not providing the way is a testament to her purpose drive life.