P is for purpose.
"Food and shelter can be withheld, but meaning is something others cannot deny us. Regardless of our life situations, as humans we are always seeking meaning." 1
Without purpose, life is flat. It's a series of obligations, where we trudge through each cold, grey day. Nothing matters.
Purpose brings colour and sparkle. It makes what we do in a day matter. Purpose is a job we love, relationships that matter, and making a difference.
For someone with dementia, or who is elderly and physically frail, purpose can be elusive. Think of these scenarios:
- George was a great husband and father. He took his boys to innumerable hockey practices and provided for his family. He took his wife out dancing and took the family on vacations. He was the salt of the earth. Now George is elderly. He has dementia, and describes the workings of his mind as being "cloudy." He is incontinent and in a wheelchair. His gravelly voice is difficult to understand.
How do you help George find purpose?
2. Flo was a strong, independent woman all her life. She gave her life serving others, but on her
terms. Now, her body betrays her every day. She can no longer walk and lives in chronic pain. It
galls her every time she has to ask for help, which happens several times a day. She is sinking
into depression, and doesn't understand why God doesn't take her home.
Where is the purpose for Flo?
3. In their marriage, Pat was the strong one. A woman who spent her life being in change, she was
caregiver for her husband for over a year as dementia changed the man she knew. She was
brave and capable. Then came the day she moved him into long term care. A few weeks later,
she was distressed to find her husband was completely happy in his new situation. He seemed to
enjoy the freedom of being on his own, and it shook everything she understood about their
marriage. Pat no longer understood her role and she floundered as she looked for purpose.
How can we help Pat to find her way?
Purpose is both individual and elusive. It involves knowing the person well, but understanding that what may have been important a few years ago may not be what makes life purposeful now.
As care partners, helping your loved one find their purpose might be the most important journey you take. Purpose involves helping the person find what makes them feel valued.
Here are some statements that lead to purpose:
"I really enjoy it when we ________________."
"I've never been to Paris. What did you like about it?"
"I need to ask your opinion about_________."
"I just love spending time with you. You teach me so much."
"Could we go for a walk together? I really love to spend time with you."
"I really need your help with___________."
Elderhood is not a time to be constantly served. It's not a time to lay on your bed and wait for the end. Each elder has something to offer. A sense of purpose.
Help them find it.