I recently shared with a friend that I felt irrelevant.
What led to that conclusion was a year of tremendous upheaval. I left my university teaching job, sold my home, moved away from my community and friends, and sent my twins to college 14 hours away. All of the roles I had assumed for years—mother, teacher, colleague, friend—seemed to fall away, leaving……what?
I have spent the last year trying to figure that out. I am still working, writing grants and teaching online, but all of my work is done in isolation at the computer. I still write. I volunteer at an organization in town. I am learning photography. But the gaping hole remains. I no longer feel a driving purpose—a passion—for anything. Aging isn’t easy.
This morning, an NPR headline caught my eye: “Could Thinking Positively About Aging Be the Secret of Health?” Apparently, a recent study found that those who viewed older people as weak and dependent died on average seven and a half years earlier than those who believed older people were experienced and wise. Our attitudes can also influence the health of our brains: “middle-aged people who had no cognitive impairment but did have negative views of aging were more likely to later develop the brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. And the more negative their views, the worse those brain changes were. On the other hand, another study found that people with positive views of older adults were much more likely to recover from major health setbacks” (NPR). Overall, positive versus negative thinking has tremendous health benefits (healthambition.com).
I believe aging can be particularly difficult for women. We live in a society that continues to value women for youth, beauty, sexuality, and fertility. Once women reach 40, society sends the message that they should just go away—they no longer matter. If they don’t find value in themselves, beyond what they are valued for by society, they often experience depression and anxiety.
What it comes down to, it seems, is having a sense of purpose: “having a purpose in life is a robust predictor of how well someone will live and thrive as they age” (NPR). Years of active parenting gave me purpose. Years of walking into a classroom and engaging with students gave me purpose. I was here for a reason. What I had to offer as mother and teacher somehow mattered and made a difference.
Purpose also pays tremendous health dividends: “People who have the sense that their life is meaningful are much less likely to suffer early mortality, they’re less like to develop disability, that is, trouble taking care of themselves….they’re less likely to suffer strokes. They’re also substantially less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and they have much less cognitive decline” (NPR).
Rediscovering a sense of purpose—knowing what my second act on this planet will be—has been a challenge. But I now have added incentive to shake off the feeling of irrelevance and discover a new path. Doing so could change everything.