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The purpose of life is a life of purpose.  –Robert Byrne

The woman singing The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” in the 2007 documentary “Young@Heart” is named Eileen Hall, and she was ninety-two at the making of the film.  The film documents the journey of a musical ensemble, composed of singers with an average age of eighty, as it prepares to present a new show.  The music they perform includes hits from the sixties and seventies, as well as more modern punk and alternative pieces.   Throughout the film, it becomes evident that the responsibility of preparing for the show and the relationships formed between members of the group give a sense of purpose and meaning in the lives of the singers.  For Eileen, who lives in a nursing home, you can sense that singing is one of the few things connecting her to others and to the larger world.  The nurses have given her keys to the door so that she can get in and out of the nursing home to attend practice.  In comparison to the common view of nursing home residents, Eileen seems much more engaged and alive.  She, like most of us, needs to be needed, needs to be a part of something bigger than herself.

The Village of Redford is a nursing home that I visited last summer in southeast Michigan.  The Village is based on a unique model called a “Green House,” in which residents are given more independence in setting their daily schedules and choosing activities than in traditional nursing homes.  This model also tries to create a greater sense of community by encouraging residents to come together every day to eat family-style at a large, common table next to an open kitchen where the food is prepared.  Managers of Green Houses have found that when residents are integrated into this model they flourish because they are able to find a place in the home where they can be part of and contribute to the community.  Whether it is visiting other residents each morning, helping to set the table, or simply being a constant presence in a common area, residents tend each find their own unique space to fill within the home.  Cost to house residents in a Green House models is similar to traditional nursing homes, but studies are showing that health outcomes are improved and healthcare costs reduced .

As humans, our need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves—to have a purpose—doesn’t diminish as we age.  However, finding that purpose is much harder, as our ability to work and participate in physical activities and the community at-large erodes.  Creating environments in which elders have the opportunity to carve out a purpose for themselves not only has the likelihood of increased contentment in their lives, but also has the potential to improve more measurable outcomes like healthcare costs and hospital admissions/readmissions rates.

Young@Heart is available for instant viewing on Netflix.