We all hear about the mid-life crisis that hits in the 40’s when marriages break up and men buy red Corvettes and women get face lifts. The question usually is “What do I want to experience while I can still enjoy it?” The mid-life crisis is the making up for lost time, the grass is greener, the last fling, a grasping after what youth and energy missed the first time around.
There is another crisis that follows the 40’s. It can happen in the 60’s or perhaps in the 70’s. It is when we have to come to terms not with what we want to do but what is still possible to do. The later life crisis faces challenges and obstacles such as lack of health, lack of money, lack of companionship, lack of energy, lack of purpose. It is by far the more difficult of the two crises and is unavoidable.
When we’re young, if we think about getting older at all, we plan to have a nice little house, loving partner, comfortable amount of money, good health, time for hobbies or just doing nothing, opportunities to travel, helping our loved ones or doing community service, an interesting job that supports our value system, good friends, some local recognition, an outlet for our creativity. I could go on but you get my drift.
So if we are good little boys and girls we invest in IRAs, pension funds and other financial hedges against future needs. And if we are even better little boys and girls, we watch what we eat, exercise regularly and floss every day. But no matter what we plan, life gets in the way. It has a way of changing our priorities as we age. For aging is all about letting go. Letting go of jobs, money, children, health, friends, driver’s licenses, mobility, homes, pets, memories, partners.
I have been ‘coaching’ a woman I will call Virginia who is in her early 60’s. I act as a sounding board, a clarifier, a focuser in her confusion for she is having a later life crisis. For the last two years she has been fighting with the bank to keep her house out of foreclosure. She is finalizing her third divorce. She holds an MA degree but is now working at a low-paying, part time job. A family member is in long-term care. She is on a variety of medications for depression, sleep deprivation, anxiety, etc.
I am providing an anchor of sorts in the midst of her storm. I help her focus on ‘next steps’ as she is overwhelmed by the changes she is going through. When I ask her what she wants to do with the rest of her life she comes back to me with a long list of 15 or 20 goals that sounds like the ones she probably had when she was young. Some things on her list may still be possible of attainment but considering her age and circumstances are not likely.
I suggest that she focus on regaining her mental and emotional health and to simplify the circumstances of her life. She must decide if financial reward or job satisfaction is more important. If keeping a house with high maintenance is preferable to a small apartment with few responsibilities. If time for friends and hobbies is more important than recognition and fame.
There is no right or wrong answer but she does have a choice. And the longer she postpones choosing, preferring instead to believe she can have it all if she just wants it hard enough, the more stressful her life will be. She is in denial of her aging, and like many of us, is acting like the young child who has a tantrum in the toy store. I want it all and I want it now!
Right now she does not see that simplifying her life will bring her the peace she so desperately wants and needs. Instead of seeing what she does not have, she could be appreciating what she still possesses. Instead of regretting what was lost and will not be again, she could be grateful for the past and enjoying the beauty of the present.
It is not easy to get old and we are never quite prepared for what we will individually experience. Perhaps it will be poor health or loneliness or poverty or pain – or maybe none of the above. There is no guidebook to aging only the shared memories and experiences of those who went before us. Although fear of aging and its limitations may be quite real, equally true are the peace, joy, beauty and trust in Life that aging can offer.
Prayer of the Navaho
Beauty is before me,
And beauty is behind me.
Above and below me hovers the beautiful.
I am surrounded by it.
I am immersed in it.
In my youth I am aware of it,
And in old age I shall walk quietly
The beautiful trail.