I was recently stunned to see a CDC finding cited in a Washington Post article that 4 out of 10 Americans say they have not found purpose in life. That is truly tragic since there is so much to be gained from a belief that one’s existence has meaning. Proponents point to lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, reduced inflammation, as well as actual extended life longevity. The Washington Post article, by Marta Zaraska, entitled “Boosting Our Sense of Meaning in Life is an Often Overlooked Longevity Ingredient,” cites a research study that proved that if a 90-year-old with a clear purpose in life develops Alzheimer’s disease, that person will probably keep functioning relatively well despite real pathological changes in the brain. As amazing as that sounds, I think we all have anecdotal evidence which supports these claims as well. For instance, 94 year old American singing legend, Tony Bennett, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. His wife reports that he continues to practice his ninety-minute musical set twice a week with his accompanist and do many things others his age cannot, despite changes in his demeanor.
Why does that happen? Why is it that some people seem to “roll with the punches” as Naomi Feil says, while others don’t?
Some years ago, we visited friends who had retired to a rather unique community near Jacksonville, Florida called Penney Farms. The land was originally acquired by the famous retailer J.C. Penney to create a low-cost retirement option for people who had served as different types of religious missionaries. These special people had spent their careers serving others less fortunate at the expense of their own material needs. Penney wanted them to live the last chapter of their lives among kindred spirits and feel valued. The guiding principle of Penney Farms is that residents (who no longer have to have been missionaries to qualify) would actively continue to serve each other with whatever skills they could bring to the community. Some people offer open workshops which teach a wide variety of practical repairs or artistry, others help assemble simple scooters which are donated to people living in Africa who have no mobility, while others assist with simple operations and maintenance of the grounds and property. Even serving meals or reading to people in the onsite infirmary are valued jobs which help defray costs. One older adult I met there had spent years caring for his very sick wife who had died not long after they moved to Penney Farms. He had lost the singular purpose of his life and withdrew into a deep depression. He was given a simple task: Every morning he would clear the path to the dining hall of leaves and debris. He knew his community counted on him because this was not busy work but essential to pride and safety. An added benefit was his daily encounters with almost all his neighbors and their cheerful greetings. His mood was lifted as time went on as he became more socially engaged. The Japanese have their own term, “ikigai”, or “life worth living” which ranges from having a paying job, to taking care of grandchildren, volunteering, or keeping one’s street clean and pretty.
People of all ages, but especially older adults, are looking for ways to feel valued and needed. Validation theory acknowledges the damage to brain function that happens normally with getting older. This is not a disease process but an aging process. Naomi Feil talks about ‘Oldheimer’s’ rather than ‘Alzheimer’s’ for very old people who are living with cognitive decline due to aging. Validation can be part of a comprehensive effort to engage these older adults, to show them respect, and acknowledge that they are still valued. All people are worthwhile and have the basic human need to be useful. These Validation principles guide our approach to older adults. Validation group sessions can lead to powerful bonding and more social interaction.
By: Fran Bulloff, VTI President
The Validation Training Institute (VTI) is a non-profit organization that advances knowledge, values, education and research rooted in the Validation method. The objective is to nurture respect, dignity and well-being in the lives of older adults experiencing age-related cognitive decline and their caregivers. Our vision for the future is that every older adult experiencing age-related cognitive decline, and their caregiver, can feel the joy and love of meaningful communication.