As we age and move through different stages of life, our focus can shift. We might change our goals, our friends, our jobs, or find new ways to define ourselves. Throughout our life, however, some things do not change. Our personality traits, for instance, remain stable. What about our needs? Once we retire, do we still need to worry about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs? Is it enough to graze in the green pasture and leave the race to a younger generation?

For many of us, the search for meaning in life is not a new one. The quest is also not new to our lifetime. Over the centuries, religions and philosophies have evolved; Shakespeare asked, “To be or not to be…”; and motivational workshops and coaching businesses are booming—all with the goal of helping us decipher the puzzle and decode our purpose.

Even in the thick of things, when life is full of tasks, challenges, to-do lists, goals, and deadlines, we sometimes feel a lack of purpose. We are busy responding to others’ needs, we are doing our job, we are raising our kids, we are moving ahead in our career, we are celebrating successes—even then, we can feel lost or disconnected from meaningfulness.

What about after all these tasks are completed, the kids are raising their own kids, the deadlines belong to someone else, and seemingly, so does the success…and the purpose. Increasingly, we are living longer. To what end?

Every week, I have the opportunity to meet one or two people to whom I administer a psychological test battery. My patients are in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Each has her own story. Some are recovering from surgery or an illness, some are struggling to regain the ability to take care of their own daily tasks or to walk up two steps or down the hallway again, but they are all learning to cope with varying degrees of depression.

The test battery I administer is not a walk in the park; it can take up to three and a half hours, it challenges one’s memory, logic, some specific brain functions, and general intelligence. Although some of the tests can be uncomfortable in pointing out weaknesses—lack of memory especially can be painful—my patients often brighten up during my visit. A woman told me that she was glad to undergo the test, because Sunday afternoons are otherwise so lonely.

Recently, two people in particular, struck a cord in me. Both are relatively fit, have their wits about them, are painfully aware of faltering memory, are lonely, and are waiting for life to end. Their financial situation allows them the comfort of a private room in a clean and well-run facility. Physical needs are met, but emotional and social ones remain woefully neglected. It is human interaction and purpose that is lacking. The gentleman said it so succinctly, “I can no longer contribute.”

Where is the disconnect? How is this happening? What can be done? How can they contribute? With whom could they connect? 

I feel confident that this is not conscious abandonment, and there are luckily many happy exceptions to this end-of-life wasteland. Broad individual differences exist. On a societal level, however, a number of factors can contribute to this current situation: geographical mobility, smaller families, economic pressures, perhaps even technology and a change in the amount of face-to-face time we expect to spend with family members, to name just a few. These are just speculations on my part. I can only guess. I know neither the cause, nor the solution. Likely, a number of solutions will be needed, depending on the circumstances and the angle of attack.

For my part, I do not know what I can do. A suspicion is creeping in that I personally will ponder the situation, delicately disentangle myself, and slink back into my sideline life. Yes, the emotions I felt—the sadness, guilt, disappointment—will surge up at various times, triggered by a sight or a memory, and I will let it sink back down. After all, what could I do to make a change? How can I help these people connect and contribute?

Perhaps the act of putting this in writing, inviting others to look and ponder, will lead to ideas and actions of others. It might even embolden me to feel that I can do something, however small, to make a difference.