Recently a professor contacted me with a situation. He detailed the lives of two retirees, busy with all sorts of activities, and “aging successfully,” by all accounts. And yet, they both wondered if, at this stage of life, there was something else. They were interested in “flourishing,” and wondered if, after writing Aging Our Way, I knew something they didn’t.
On the very same day, my students participated in an activity. At the suggestion of one of the students, everyone in my Sociology of the Life Course class wrote on scraps of paper their answer to this question, “What constitutes a meaningful life?” Then they crumpled their anonymous responses, threw them into the middle of our circle (yes, we sit in a circle) and then fished one out to read aloud.
Call it what you will—successful aging, a life of purpose, flourishing—we are all seekers, no matter our age or background.
My students, in the midst of their own personal search for meaning and identity in college, wonder about how to find meaning and balance in their current lives, as well as in their post-college years ahead. Most are prepared to “boomerang” back to their family homes, while looking for employment and embarking on a new chapter of life.
At the same time, some of their parents will also be starting new chapters. They are also on the threshold of reinventing themselves in some way.
There is no correct path ahead. The options will look different for each of us, as will the ideals. But a process of life reflection is always helpful. When my students partner with elders to do a life history project, they are forced to do some personal reflection. When they hear about the life events, turning points, and passions that structure and guide elders in their lives, they reflect on the life that they want to lead. Similarly, when elders engage in a life review process with another, they can reaffirm what is important in the years ahead.
I have learned a great deal from the elders I have befriended over the years. The 30 “oldest old” individuals from Aging Our Way have helped me to reflect on what flourishing means to me. First, they remind me to do what I have always done—to work at continuity. At the same time, they model how to actively embrace new challenges, and creatively adapt in the context of change, always learning, growing, and anticipating.
When I joined my students in answering the big question, I realized that most of the “13 Lessons” of Aging Our Way have made it onto my personal checklist for living a purpose-driven, comfortable life. My elder friends remind me that lifelong learning requires creativity, gratitude and lightness. I must prioritize care for myself, remember to reach out to others, and to cultivate supportive and caring communities. I also know that for me, staying close to family and nature helps me to achieve a sense of balance.
What constitutes a meaningful life for you? I’d love to hear from you, silent and pensive readers.
Copyright Meika Loe
Meika Loe is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Colgate University. She is the author of Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond.