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Purpose, Meaning, and Resiliency: Insights from an aging father

February 10, 2016

My passion for supporting the resiliency of my clients has taken on an unexpected new twist as I consider ways to help my aging father navigate the loss of his resiliency and diminishing will to live.

 

Fiercely independent as a former Navy commander, Dad prided himself on his self-sufficiency after my mother died in 1996. He has always been optimistic and positive, staying connected with friends, taking care of his health, and volunteering to help others. However, my father became increasingly frail over the past few years causing him to become emotionally vulnerable and highly dependent on our family for support. His neglect of simple self-care activities and cognitive impairment from diminished pulmonary capacity has lead to unexpected health challenges as well as his frustration with his aging body. Unfortunately, my siblings who live nearest to him have received the brunt of his anger. Two years ago, we moved my father into a well-regarded assisted living facility. The combination of having skilled nursing support as well as high-quality food translated into improvements in his physical and emotional well-being.

 

Despite initial improvements in his well being, my father struggled. Two weeks ago I visited my Dad as part of my conscious decision to play a more substantial role in his care and support. He confided to me that he has nothing to live for with his failing health, a sense of isolation, and boredom. Dad complained that the other residents in his facility were not interested in building a connection with him. I then helped him walk to the lunchroom which provided me the opportunity to observe him interact with other residents. 

 

When coaching clients share their anxious feelings with me when facing substantial challenges, I can be present with them and allow them to share their experiences. However, while listening to my father share his feelings of hopelessness I struggled to remain attentive and empathetic. I wanted Dad to want to live and not give up. I wanted my old Dad back who seemed full-of-life and driven. How could I honor what he was feeling while also helping him reclaim his resiliency to navigate this final stage of his life? 

 

One of the first researchers to address the subject of meaning and purpose was psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. As a concentration camp survivor, Frankl observed people in the camps who had lost everything but still made conscious choices to give away their last piece of bread. He concluded in his book Man's Search for Meaning, "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." Resilient people grow from tough times when they make conscious choices about what adversity means for them. Frankl also recalled how he coped with the horrors of the camps by visioning himself lecturing to students about the experience once he was released. This combination of choosing his reaction to the experience along with the purpose he had yet to fulfill bolstered his resiliency and enabled him to survive. 

 

The conversation with my Dad led me to conclude that his hopelessness was due in part to a lack of purpose and meaning. His lack of hope translated into why-bother attitude toward self-care, reaching out to others who live in his facility for support, and engaging in the hobbies he used to love. In focusing on his declining health, Dad had forgotten the legacy of his life's work as a leader in the Navy, father, and volunteer. Without a sense of meaning, Dad lost his optimism and motivation to act as identified by the work of Martin Seligman on learned helplessness.  I considered how I could help my dad reclaim some sense of purpose and meaning in his experience of aging.

 

When I spoke with my father, I reminded him of two life experiences that held great purpose for him. For much of his life, he often has spoken to my siblings and me about the importance of financial stewardship. Several years ago, Dad taught classes about financial management to military veterans. The glowing evaluations he received after each session was a great source of pride for him since participants described the impact of his lessons. Dad also shared some stories about his military service and role as the commander of a ship. Without knowing specific management theories, he was clearly a transformative leader who believed strongly in building and sustaining relationships with his subordinates. He described how he engaged front-line staff to get their opinions on how to improve the operations of the ship and acted on their input. Though these efforts, Commander Nourse was awarded the Navy's coveted Battle Effectiveness Award which resulted in the letter “E” being painted on the bow of his ship. I tried to reinforce for my father that despite his failing health, he lived a life of integrity, meaning, and impact on others.

 

Consistent with my approach to supporting coaching clients, I had a sense that my Dad needed to take action. I challenged him to reflect on his peak experiences and capture his important life lessons. While Dad’s short-term memory has become increasingly fragile, his long term memory is vibrant. I reminded him of the wisdom he developed through years of experience and how it could have a significant impact on others and future generations in the Nourse family. I also invited him to write down his lessons learned so I could incorporate them into future books I want to write as a method of helping reestablish purpose. Since Dad appreciates routines, I suggested he set aside a regular period every day before lunch to write one paragraph about an important lesson he learned from the various roles he played in his life. He stopped complaining, looked at me curiously, and cautiously considered my suggestion.

 

I focused my doctoral research several years ago on resiliency with hopes of positively impacting the lives of people who faced tough times by helping them sustain their resiliency. My visit with my father opened me up to the potential that I could use my talents much closer to home to help him rebuild his resiliency in the final chapter of his life. 

 

(c) 2016 Kevin Nourse, PhD

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