Finding meaning and purpose in your life is essential, but especially so when reflecting on your past and facing your mortality. One strategy to do this is to be of service to others. Being of service and giving back can take many forms including volunteering your time, donating money, or mentoring and sharing your expertise. There is plenty of need in this world, and there is enormous benefit to giving back. As one self-help guru said, “Givers gain!”
Volunteers make up a powerful workforce across this nation. In many communities they are the backbone of social services for all age groups. Whether this be volunteering for Meals on Wheels, providing rides to medical appointments, or visiting skilled nursing facilities with pets or programs, these activities seem to address our very human need to be of service. And there is no question that the satisfaction that comes from giving is immeasurable.
Giving is an act of generosity. It is also a way to manage and control situations. Many of us consciously or unconsciously use it as a strategy to cover up feelings of insecurity or to make sure that others are beholden. This may be especially true if you grew up being told, “It is better to give than receive.” When I am in the position of being a giver, I have the added benefit of social approval, and the reassurance that I am OK. I also am in control.
On the other hand, there is a down side to being a giver all the time. If you are forever giving, you may not have much experience receiving. Inevitably, as we age, we will find that the balance tips and where once you were the giver, now you become the receiver. It is essential to find a balance between giving and receiving so that we can experience the love, assistance, and the care we need as we age.
This can be quite difficult, as it suggests that somehow you are no longer competent, in charge, or able to do things on your own. This can bring up feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. After all, receiving is an act of trust. As we age, we will need to practice receiving lots of different kinds of help from others. Many of us will end up needing some kind of caregiving. We may need someone to take us to doctor’s appointments. We may need someone to pick up food or medicine. We may need someone to help us with our most intimate and personal of functions.
These needs may be met by family members or strangers. Ours is a generation that will be relying on the kindness of strangers, because so many of us did not have children. As our numbers grow, so will our need for support and care, especially if we are to remain in our homes. Finding trained and reliable caregivers is already a challenge that many of you may have encountered. It is only going to get more intense.
When you are at your most vulnerable, say after surgery, it would be useful to have a set of skills to let others know your needs and limitations as well as your strengths. A common complaint in my work is that folks who are being cared for in their home are often treated like infants. Typically, this is directed at care providers (professional and hired) who are more focused on completing their tasks than engaging with their client or patient. To be fair, our care system is not designed for engaging. Caregivers may not have the time or curiosity to find out more about you, and may feel caught between productivity requirements and the need to get to the next case. Being able to speak up and just say, “Please take a moment to talk with me before your start your procedures!” could be a game changer.
Receiving also takes on spiritual meaning. There are many gifts in aging, some more welcome than others, but most can be received with gratitude and grace. Receiving blessings from others is a universal way of acknowledging our connectedness and shared vulnerabilities. As Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
Practicing receiving is actually an excellent strategy to increase your capacity for staying engaged as you age. It may be as simple as letting others hold a door open for you or carry packages to your car. It may be more challenging when you let your child take on responsibilities like managing finances or hosting a holiday celebration. It may be even more intimidating if you need to have your child bathe you or change dressings. If you find yourself thinking how this would impact your life as you read this, it probably is a good indicator that some planning needs to be done!
Research shows consistent positive benefits when people pray for you. Studies have been done at Stanford University and across the nation and have been replicated with the same outcomes. Having others pray, even if those praying don’t know you personally, appears to reduce levels of stress, tension, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness. In many instances, people who were prayed for in these studies enjoyed several extra months of life and were able to die peacefully, feeling loved and cared for.
One inspiring example of the benefits of giving and receiving over the lifespan is President Jimmie Carter and his wife, Rosalyn Carter. As people of faith, President and Mrs. Carter continue to remain engaged in their local church where they teach Bible study. Both are active in Habitat for Humanity, and the President, along with other world leaders, is actively pursuing peace and tolerance through the foundation, The Elders. Both eat well, exercise, and continue to challenge their minds, bodies, and soul.
Using these strategies will help you to stay engaged across the lifespan and will act as a profound antidote to loneliness and isolation. Practicing receiving as well as giving will bring balance to your life and open up possibilities that you had no idea existed.
As the great Bill Withers wrote and sang:
Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on
You just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on