Enabling Meaning and Purpose in the Lives of Our Loved Ones

By Donna Thomson


How can we help our loved ones experience meaning and purpose in their lives? Does having a disability, getting older, or losing cognitive skills automatically exclude the possibility of purpose in life?

In my family, meaningful contribution is central to happiness. I believe it is for most people. Our son Nicholas is 25 and mostly bed-ridden due to severe cerebral palsy. He is non-speaking, but nevertheless communicates effectively with the combination of a few words, tongue clicks, hand gestures and in a pinch, a switch activated computer system (it’s slow and labor intensive).

Since Nick finished school, we’ve searched for how he might find a meaningful job. He’s tried selling on E-Bay (he still does that from time to time) and he writes a sportsblog (which he enjoys). But his recent foray into creating and managing sports betting pools is the magic bullet for meaning and purpose in Nick’s life, currently. The sports addicted members of our family and best friends all participate in annual NHL (ice hockey) pools and currently, in a world cup soccer one as well. Nick is the ‘commissioner’ and his role comes with weighty responsibilities. Prior to the season or tournament, Nick convenes all the participants for ‘the player draft’ in his room. Pizza and beer are served and participants who live out of town join in via Skype. Lots of trash talking ensues as everyone picks their players and creates their own fantasy team. Nick decides how points will be awarded and over the course of the season, he sorts out problems, answers questions and at season’s end, grudgingly awards the grand prize to the winner. The betting pool is a source of purpose for Nicholas, but it has the added benefit of keeping friends and family socially engaged with Nick in a purposeful way. The guys in the pool all want to win!

My Mom craves meaning and purpose in her life too. A couple of weeks ago, she threw me a curve ball when she remarked, “I’ve got it in my craw that I want to get a job.” This, from a feisty, but tired 92-year old who rarely has the energy to dress up in anything but a fancy nightgown most days. My sister and I put on our thinking caps. Knitting for premature babies perhaps? Then, I happened to see an article online about a seniors’ home in Chicago that paired up with an English language school in Sao Paolo, Brazil to have weekly English conversation practice sessions via skype. Watch the video – it’s so deeply heart-warming.

This is meaning and purpose without leaving home or getting dressed up. So, I showed the program to the manager of Mom’s home and I hope someone will run with it there. But as a Plan B, I’m looking for a trusted person in my network, too, who seeks conversational English practice with a native speaker who has plenty of time and a good sense of humor.

Meaning in someone’s life can be a highly individual affair. People with severe Alzheimer’s or dementia can sometimes find profound purpose in singing to a doll. The primal memories of nurturing children manifest themselves in cradling a doll or even a pet. Once we get past judging these activities as being possibly unworthy (on a ‘normal’ scale) or even creepily unnatural, we can begin to glimpse how life affirming they are. Put your assumptions about what constitutes a meaningful life aside for a few moments and watch this video.

Meaning and purpose through contribution is absolutely central to everyone’s happiness and wellbeing. Our challenge as caregivers is to find a meaningful activity or interest in the life of our loved one, make it accessible and then share it and celebrate it. Very often, it can mean the difference between happiness and despair.