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Changing An Address? Tools for Taking Along Life's Purpose and Identity

by Greenmyer, Annah

May 2024

When considering life's purpose and identity, what comes to mind? For some, it might be their career as a homemaker, farmer, or teacher. For others, it may be their hobby: fishing, crocheting, or painting. However, for older adults experiencing the major life transition of moving into a nursing home, it may feel like the things that provided life's purpose got left behind in the move. Research indicates that losing life's purpose can trigger new or worsened health conditions. Without that sense of purpose, deep sadness may develop and might show up as poor appetite, poor sleep, or even increased aches and pains.

Occupational therapists have several suggestions on how someone's identity and purpose can stay with them, no matter where they go. The first suggestion is making a decorative poster to use as a conversation starter. To be hung in their room where it's easily seen, the poster can have photos representing the resident's career, hobby, or anything that the resident determines is part of their “life's purpose.” These pictures will likely start conversations between residents and visitors or staff who might raise questions like, “I see lots of pictures of flowers. What's your favorite flower? or “I see a fish on your poster, does that mean you like to fish? Where's your favorite fishing spot?

For those with memory problems, research shows another intervention, containers called sensory activity boxes, that can be specifically beneficial. These boxes hold items someone has frequently used. For example, if someone was famous for their baking, a box with muffin liners, measuring cups, or dry beans to stir around with a wooden spoon using oven mitts can trigger positive memories of what and who they used to bake for.

Because research indicates that nursing home residents or those who live in other long-term care facilities often struggle to connect with each other, a last suggestion is for another conversation starter. The tool includes attaching pictures to cards and adding recommended questions relating to the photo. The goal of this tool is to provide topics that give residents the opportunity to talk with each other about things that might relate to their identity or life purpose. For example, in rural areas, conversations might start around a picture of a tractor with questions underneath it like “Did you grow up on a farm?” or “What kind of tractors did your farm use?” These cards can be displayed in standing frames and placed in common areas, like a cafeteria or anywhere residents spend time.

To wrap up, research shows that using these tips can allow someone who's moving to be able to take their identity and life's purpose with them. Photo posters, sensory activity boxes, and conversation starter cards are just three of many tools that can help maintain self-esteem, positive emotions, and even physical health. In the end, everyone's life has purpose and a unique identity that can be honored by family, friends, and loved ones.

This article also appeared in the May 22, 2024 issue of the Thief River Falls Times.

About the Author

Annah Greenmyer is a 3rd-year student in the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences Occupational Therapy doctorate program. As a participant in the patient care experiences offered in Thief River Falls, Greenmyer also chose to participate in the school's Targeted Rural Health Education program, or TRHE. The program focuses on teaching student healthcare professionals the importance of rural newspapers in sharing health information with their rural community members. The information is not for diagnosis or treatment and should not be used in place of previous medical advice provided by a licensed practitioner.