Sunday 23 October 2016

Finding a new purpose: life beyond lonely retirement

Mind and Meaning...

Patricia Casey

Published 23/08/2016 | 02:30

People need a purpose in life
People need a purpose in life

My annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Festivals is now in full swing, and one of the many performances I have seen was a moving, yet funny, play called The Lounge, which deals with life in a nursing home.

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The main protagonist is a 97-year-old who, until she fractured her hip, lived in a 1950s house. She now spends her days watching Jeremy Kyle and hearing herself called "darling" and "my love", as if she was without a name, by the busy nurse and by the male care assistant.

The play is part of the Mass Observation Movement, in which the detail of everyday life is seen as reflecting a wider socio-political reality - in this instance attitudes to growing old by others and by those directly affected.

People need a purpose in life. We need to feel valued and wanted and to believe that we make a contribution to the world. And one of the problems that older people identify is that they feel they have no further role in society - except perhaps as support for their children and grandchildren.

This sense of uselessness is more pertinent for those forced into retirement at the age of 65 after a life of devoted service.

While some eagerly await the next phase of their lives that begins with retirement, others are less sanguine and speak with some nostalgia, and a touch of bitterness of their sadness at the loss of camaraderie.

Loneliness, coupled with the lack of any meaningful alternatives to work and the perception of being relegated to a repository for the aged, can lead to crippling depression.

A sense of hopelessness stifles any purpose that life may have, without the structure that work provides.

A survey released by the Office of National Statistics in Britain a few years ago found that more than 20pc of those in the 65-69 age bracket are "economically active" and working for at least one hour each week or, if unemployed, are actively looking for work.

This trend of continuing to work past the official retirement age may be related, not only to the rising life expectancy among men and women, but also to the benefits of a disability-free life expectancy.

Because Ireland has an ageing population, with an increasingly healthy life expectancy, plans are afoot to increase the age of retirement to 68, in a staged manner.

It is unclear if this will be compulsory. What is clear is that for those who want it, this will have mental health benefits. At present many seek purpose and structure post-retirement in volunteering, for the football club, voluntary organisations or charity shops.

A study from Southampton and Birmingham Universities published last week in BMJ Open, has shown that becoming a volunteer later in life is associated with good mental health and well-being. The results are based on the responses of 66,000 British adults to questions on leisure time activities, including the extent of formal volunteering. The survey also included a validated measure of mental health known as GHQ-12.

The positive association between volunteering and good mental health became apparent at around the age of 40 and continued up into old age (80+). The lead author of this study, Dr Faiza Tabassum, points out that it is unclear if volunteering itself causes better mental health or if it is that those with good mental health are more likely to volunteer their time.

This needs to be tested in a controlled intervention in which people are randomly assigned to volunteering or not. Edinburgh would be a good starting point for such a study because there are 110 charity shops in the city, for a population of less than half a million.

Poking around these is one of the great joys of being in Edinburgh for the three festivals. Seeing social action happening on the ground is as fulfilling as learning about it in reflective theatre.

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