To Slow the Aging Process, Preserve Your Sense of Purpose

Experts recommend staying engaged and active in whatever interests you.​


Though Phoebe Cottingham will be 81 in June, the highly trained economist with a pair of advanced degrees who worked for the federal government for six years still feels like she’s in college.

As she goes through her days at Independence, a 55-and-over community in Millsboro, she has the kind of interactions that remind her of her undergraduate days at Penn State, when people came together for a variety of activities. Her friends and neighbors at her community provide a social web that allows her to remain vibrant, even as the years pile up. By staying connected, Cottingham fills her days with friendship and a strong sense of purpose.

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“Our community is like going to college,” she says. “Getting to know people is fun, but you have to be ready to do that.”

Creating connections

For years, people have spoken about aging gracefully, but that term has been a generally nebulous designation without much concrete definition. These days, it’s easier to understand how people like Cottingham successfully ward off time’s advances. While there is no broad-based formula that applies to everyone, simply because there are too many variables due to health and other factors, there are several characteristics shared by those who remain vibrant and energized during their senior years. The ability to connect with others and have the ability to engage in interests is especially important.

“I’ve always been a very active person,” says Cottingham, who is the president of the East Sussex Republican Club. “I worked full time until I was 72.”

Diet, exercise and managing health issues are vital parts of navigating the aging process successfully. But current studies indicate that having a sense of purpose and being engaged socially can be just as important. Older people need a positive mental outlook just as much as they require physical health and stamina. It’s a blend of specifics—eating right, remaining on the move—and intangibles—having friends and reasons to feel necessary—that can produce a rewarding twilight.

According to a 2017 study of 6,000 people over the age of 50 published in JAMA Psychiatry, those who had a sense of purpose in their daily lives had less possibility of losing strength in their grips and developing slower walks—two significant indications of aging. Further, those with increased purpose took better care of themselves, paid greater attention to their diets and exercise needs and had more positive outlooks on life—huge benefits when time conspires to make the body ache and falter.

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“The research we are doing supports the idea that a person should have a sense of purpose,” says Dr. James Ellison, the Swank Foundation endowed chair in Memory Care and Geriatrics at Christiana Care. “That has been my clinical experience as well. A person’s sense of purpose can decline with age. Having a sense of purpose has been associated in research with a number of improved results, such as self-reported health, immune system response, optimism and decreased depression and loneliness,” says Ellison.

Sue Claire Harper stays engaged by taking classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UD.//Leslie Barbaro

Staying social

Just as Cottingham is involved with the East Sussex Republicans, 70-year-old Sue Claire Harper has had an ongoing stint as chair of the League of Women Voters in Sussex County’s Land Use Committee. A registered nurse who worked for decades with patients who suffered spinal cord and brain injuries, Harper moved to Delaware in January 2011. While looking for information about an upcoming election, she connected with the League and became fascinated with the issues of the day.

“You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem,” Harper says.

Harper’s commitment to the League can be up to 40 hours a week, and she is active in a variety of projects that the league promotes. She is involved in the county’s comprehensive plan, which it undertakes every 10 years and is an organizer of forums that bring together citizens and experts to discuss a variety of issues. She also takes classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Delaware and was most recently delighted to learn about issues facing India from a former Indian ambassador.

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“They are a source of sheer joy for me,” she says of the classes. “That’s my treat to myself.”

Harper’s high level of engagement provides her with plenty of reason to greet each day with enthusiasm and provides a strong social connection that experts believe is vital for those trying to temper the negative effects of aging.

“A strong social life is a good distraction,” says Dr. Preeti Gupta, a physician at Bayhealth Primary Care in Milford. “Having a circle of family and friends allows people to live better. They don’t stay in one place and think about their anxiety and worry about whether their grandchildren are having problems.”

Being engaged and adding purpose to their lives can help seniors greatly. But there are other behaviors that can contribute greatly to successful aging. One is the ability to get good sleep. That may seem impossible for many older folks, since a variety of circumstances and conditions inhibit the ability to get sustained rest. The good news, is that according to Gupta, people in their 70s and 80s require less sleep than do those who are younger.

Getting on track

So, how to get it? The term “sleep hygiene” has become popular in recent years, and it is quite important for older Americans. It is important to have a routine at bedtime that signals to the body that sleep is imminent. As it is for teenagers, a heavy dose of screen time before bed can be counterproductive, as can caffeine, sugar and alcohol. Having a consistent bedtime is important, as is a regular time to rise. And when sleep does not come easily, don’t linger in bed getting more anxious.

“If you can’t fall asleep, get up and do something relaxing,” suggests Dr. Gina Facciolo, from the Beebe Family Practice in Rehoboth Beach. “And don’t use your bedroom for anything other than sleep and sex.”

As the body ages, exercise becomes ever more important. It doesn’t just build stamina and keep muscles toned; it also helps build balance and stability, which can ward off dangerous falls. Being physically active also helps promote emotional health. Being on the move creates a sense of accomplishment, while also oxygenating the blood and helping release endorphins, which trigger positive feelings throughout the body. The exercise doesn’t have to be hard-core aerobic or heavy weight training. Ellison reports that stretching is also important for older people to help  increase flexibility and balance. He cautions that all people should speak with a physician to find out what level of exercise they can tolerate. He also reminds people that there are many ways to increase activity, such as parking further from a store and walking or carrying some packages or bags from the car.

“Exercise at every age is important for good health,” Ellison says. “It improves the metabolism, lowers blood pressure and stimulates the growth of new brain cells.”

Don’t forget about diet. Ellison recommends the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat oils. One doesn’t have to follow a rigid pattern, but it is important to fill the body with as many good things as possible. Doing so helps ward off illness and fuel the furnace with materials that help foster a healthy, active lifestyle.

“I was never a believer in fads,” Cottingham says. “I know what agrees with me. I have learned by experience. You know to do it in moderation,” she says.

And keep doing it—for as many years as possible.

Editors’ note: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that Sue Claire Harper is the president of the League of Women Voters of Sussex County (LWVSC). Harper is the chair of the LWVSC’s Land Use Committee. Martha Redmond is LWVSC’s current president. We regret the error. 

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