Transforming Aging From a Social Problem to a Social Solution

May 31, 2018

By Paul Weiss, PhD, President, Oasis Institute

This March I had the opportunity to sit on a panel at the Aging in America Conference in San Francisco, along with Kate Hoepke, executive director of San Francisco Village, and Jim Emerman, executive vice president of Encore.org, to discuss purpose.

Jim presented findings from recent Encore research, Purpose in the Encore Years: Shaping Lives of Meaning and Contribution. Kate and I discussed the ways in which both the Village and Oasis organizations create opportunities for purposeful engagement, and how the findings from the Encore study are observable in the field conditions of our work. There were six core findings from the research project; one in particular especially resonates with the work we do through Oasis.

Finding #4: “Purposeful living is not a zero-sum game.”

The study describes this finding broadly as the discovery that “purposeful living does not crowd out other pleasures or personal goals. Contrary to expectations, people who place a high priority on beyond-the-self goals simultaneously endorse views of later life that embrace self-oriented activities such as continued learning, leisure, and the like —even more so than people who are NOT [emphasis mine] engaged with purposeful goals.”

This turns the concept of a “selfless devotion to purpose and serving others” on its head, because so many of the reported benefits of purposeful engagement are experienced by the giver.

However, this finding in no way diminishes the multi-person impact of purpose. Finding purpose through volunteering, caregiving and encore careers is far from exclusively beneficial to the active participant. Through engaging in purposeful endeavors, older adults can be powerful forces for social change. At Oasis this includes opportunities to teach classes, become certified in Oasis’s evidence-based programs to help peers improve their health and fitness, support the operations of an Oasis center, and mentor young children through the Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring program.

The Oasis approach to aging and older adulthood transcends the concept of “serving seniors” by providing opportunities for growth and transformation instead of intervention, and focusing on thriving instead of just surviving. Oasis encourages older adults to make learning part of their lives every day, to learn about and practice healthy eating, exercise and disease prevention and management habits, and to be change agents in their communities through meaningful and impactful volunteering.

Some of the most persistent social challenges include the burdensome social cost of healthcare for at-risk [read as: “aging”] populations, and the growing gap in access to premium educational outcomes and resources across demographic, ethnic and economic lines. Oasis engages older adults throughout the country as community health workers who improve health outcomes among their peers, and as an army of nearly 5,000 mentors and literacy training specialists who work with young children who need both the self-esteem and reading support that a well-trained older adult can deliver magnificently.

It’s easy to make the case for the surging population of older adults being far more than a population that needs to be “served.” This is a population that can create transformational outcomes that go far beyond “aging issues.” Helping older adults find purpose and supporting their purposeful endeavors improves the quality of their lives, and it also results in impactful social change. This shift in how we perceive the aging process can help us transform our growing population of aging Americans from a social problem to a social solution.

About the Oasis Institute

Oasis is a national education organization that promotes healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles and service. Offering stimulating programs in the arts, humanities, health, technology and volunteer service, Oasis brings people together to learn, lead and contribute in their communities. The Oasis Institute in St. Louis is the headquarters of a national network that serves a broad audience in 42 U.S. cities through nine educational centers and community partners. For more information, visit www.oasisnet.org


This post is part of the “Older Adults & Aging” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.

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