The Second Half of Life: Aging with Vigor and Grace

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Dr. Paula Fellingham and Kimberly Weichel

Every year should teach you something valuable; whether you get the lesson is up to you. Every year brings you closer to expressing your whole and healed self. —Oprah Winfrey

           Ours is the first generation of women who have had careers for much of our lives. We are living fuller lives than most of our parents and grandparents could imagine. Because we are living longer, we are entering a period of life that is virtually uncharted. It is a time when many of us have reduced social expectations and family obligations, and we have more freedom, resources, time, and desire to engage in new activities with meaning and purpose.

            In fact, for many today, retirement is a “roleless” role. The traditional notion of retirement fits with a worn-out notion of aging that conceives of it primarily in terms of disengagement and decline. Today “old” is being redefined as a time of vitality and increased happiness. Our second half of life can be a time of renewal and rebirth.

            With perhaps thirty or more years left to live, many of us have an opportunity to create a better quality of life, leave a legacy, contribute to society in meaningful ways, enjoy the simple pleasures of life, or pursue our lifelong dreams. While the years beyond fifty offer exciting opportunities and infinite possibilities, this less-structured time of choice can also be frustrating and overwhelming if we have not adequately planned for it.

          There are about fifty million American women in this “season” of life. Together we transitioned from typewriters to computers, and from peddle-pushers to capris. Many of us share similar fears and dreams. We are the ones who worry about our children and aging parents at the same time. While we are grateful for our social security checks, some of us think about Botox and wonder how we suddenly became the “older generation”. We face this new period in our lives with a mix of wonderment and anxiety.

          For most women, 50 is when our world starts to look different. Some women realize that they are not the person they thought they’d be, and don’t have the life they expected to have.  Many of the things they had pursued and hoped for – love, adventure, family, career success, notoriety – has either alluded them or doesn’t look nearly as good as they were expecting.  And for some, disappointment and frustrations lead to what society labels “a midlife crisis”.

            For many, turning 50 is a wakeup call to do some of the things we always wanted to do. During this season of our lives, we realize it’s now or never. Many women 50+ are making significant changes like going back to school, buying a motorcycle, starting a new business or a nonprofit organization, moving to another country or learning a new skill. Perhaps the most significant changeis the creation of an entire movement…. a new time in the history of women.

            The American Association of Retired People (AARP) reminds us that we are indeed part of a revolution because we are the first generation to change careers after the age of 50. One study shows that 40% of people working at age 62 changed careers after turning 55. More Americans past 65 work today than ever before, partly because of their need for financial resources, and partly because they have good health and enjoy working. We are setting new trends.

            Our midlife is far different than our grandmother’s or even our mother’s midlife. Theirs was often born of limitations. It was a time when those 50+ had fewer choices and were considered past their prime – seeing less of everything ahead: less opportunity, less fulfillment, less fun, less time, less hope. It was a time of closing down.

            However, things have changed dramatically. Thanks to better nutrition, medical advancements, higher incomes, better education, and long experience at juggling multiple roles, today many of us have far different expectations for our lives. We are making our middle and older years the best time of our lives. Consistent with our history, we baby boomer women are creating a new model as we get older.

            Why? Because today’s women are profoundly different in our attitudes about aging. More and more of us refuse to accept the old societal stereotype that older women are irrelevant or “over the hill”. Instead, we believe we are standing strong, with outstretched arms, on TOP of the hill, confidently excited about the limitless possibilities before us. Instead of asking, “What if?” we’re asking, “Why not?”

            Such questions come naturally to us baby boomers who have been setting trends and extending barriers our whole lives. We are the ones who have worked to raise the glass ceiling. We moved out of the secretary’s chair into the CEO’s office; out of the station wagon and into a sports car. We explained to our husbands or partners that even though their fathers didn’t change diapers, we expected their active involvement. We broke rules and we keep on breaking them.

            We are observing our peers taking risks, developing talents, having more fun, and believing in themselves in ways their mothers never did.  From attending skill-development classes to taking our lives in whole new directions, we women 50+ are awakening. Many of us are in the middle of an exciting, soul-fulfilling metamorphosis, with fewer responsibilities and more options – happier than we have ever been. Those of us who are engaged in such a transition are taking the crisis right out of aging and enjoying this season in our lives. Yes, grandmothers are running for senator, going adventure traveling, rock climbing; taking up painting, writing children’s books and doing many of the things they wanted to do. 

            We are energetic, engaged, and engaging, like we’ve always been. Perhaps we’re doing it a little slower in older bodies, but our minds are sharp, our souls are wise, and our hearts are soft. You can sense it. You know you are transitioning because you’re bolder – you have waded through life’s muck and now you’re clearer about what you want. You do not know what lies ahead, but you are ready to figure out what comes next.

            Most of us agree that we don’t want to go back and do it all again. What we want is to stand on the foundation of our experiences and hard-earned wisdom, take everything we have learned and everything we have become – and use it all to create a life that is fulfilling, purposeful, and overflowing with love and joy. We are at a point where our dreams need to be reviewed and reevaluated, old and new – even some we never dared dream – so we can begin creating the second life we always wanted. For many of us, our dreams are no longer centered on working for money, status or approval, but rather on the quality of our lives.

            Most of us were raised to believe that if we are going to be successful at something, the foundation had to be in place well before the age of forty. Perhaps when life expectancy was shorter that was true, but it is not true today. Women now are living 30 and 40 years past our retirement age. Our first forty years of experiences, both good and challenging, are all essential for creating our new dreams. We are wiser today because we know what does and does not work for us.

            When we hear an older woman say, “I’ve made wrong turns, many mistakes and wasted a lot of time on the wrong things. I think my big moment came and went,” we know that actually nothing is wasted – that we’ve learned from everything that’s happened in our lives. And we remind ourselves that all our life experiences can be lessons that help us in the future. Such thinking counteracts this common self-criticism: “When I was younger, I was somebody. People respected me and valued my opinion. Now, I feel invisible and irrelevant.” While our youth focused culture might see older people as irrelevant, we are debunking old stereotypes and creating new cultural norms as we develop our next steps with unlimited possibilities. 

            Author Barbara Sher explained in her book, It’s Only Too Late if You Don’t Start Now,(1) “You can experience midlife as a time of immense opportunity – as a time of growth and transformation, as a time to be celebrated.  By the sheer magnitude of our numbers, we are inventing a new Middle Age. Fifty million women of the baby-boomer generation are going to reverse the belief that midlife is a dead end, a time of loss and decline. The opposite is true. Midlife is a time of rebirth. As we embrace this rite of passage, not only will we shape the second half of our own lives, but we’ll set an example for the generations of women to come.” 

            It is inspiring to look at a few of the many successful women over 50:

  • Lauren Bacall, who taught Humphry Bogart how to whistle, went back to perform on Broadway at the age of seventy-six.
  • Gloria Stuart stole the show in the movie Titanicat the age of eighty-seven. In real life, she had given up movie acting in the 1950s to learn to become a painter in Europe. Then, she returned to acting in her 80’s.
  • Grandma Moses was seventy-six when she took up painting.
  • Golda Meir was sworn in as Israel’s premier at seventy.
  • Actress Judi Dench was awarded the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her performance of Queen Elizabeth when she was 64.
  • Hillary Clinton started a new career as a U.S. Senator and then Secretary of State in 2009, at age 61. She then ran for President in 2016, at age 69.
  • Nancy Pelosi, at 80 years old, became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for a second term.

            As Eleanor Roosevelt so beautifully stated, “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it – to taste and experience to the utmost; to reach out eagerly and without fear for new and richer experiences.”

            We invite you to consider these questions…

Have you ever wanted to take an acting class? Or teach one? Do you have a secret wish to walk on a glacier? Or travel to Patagonia? Do you ever fantasize about writing in a cottage in Wales or Ireland? Or being a minister and having your own congregation? Do you think of studying anthropology and going into the rain forests to do field research? Do you ever wish you had become a doctor or painter or teacher or mentor?

            Now is our chance. Midlife is often the first time when many of us have the luxury – or the desire – to go after the dreams of the unusual, one-of-a-kind person we really are. There is nothing frivolous about dreams that come from deep in our hearts. Older woman today are reinventing what retirement is and what it is supposed to look like, seeing obstacles as opportunities.

            In the book, My Time, Abigail Trafford wrote, “You write your own script at this stage of life. But there are some predictable patterns. Without self-awareness and an understanding of the changes that are occurring internally and externally, you can flounder in these years. You move on to a key developmental task in late life called Generativity, the task of giving of yourself to others, of giving back to the community. This is a time for empathetic leadership when the need for achievement is replaced by the need for human connection and making a difference. You can become a steward of the culture, the wise storyteller who preserves the moral narrative to guide future generations.” (2)

            Sometimes a “midlife crisis” is a sign that there is a restlessness bursting to be set free. It signals a response that it’s now time to begin doing the things that have been on your bucket list for years, and perhaps for decades. It is almost like some of us are experiencing a second adolescence.

            Midlife crisis means “a separating” or “a turning point.” The root implies that a crisis is a time of letting go of old ways of being, a time when we can ask ourselves what we need to leave behind and what we can reclaim. This can take many forms – purchasing a motorcycle or sportscar, leaving a relationship or changing careers. The motivation behind most midlife crises is usually a strong desire for change and a great desire to experience more happiness. Most women ages 50 – 80, with whom we’ve discussed the topic of aging, shared that this is the best time of their lives because aging can lead to increased power and a stronger sense of self.

             The second half of our lives share two important comparisons with our teenage years. The first is Empowerment. For teenagers, this is physical empowerment. Teenagers are suddenly as big and strong as their parents. For older people it is lifeempowerment “…which comes from wisdom and experience rather than hormones and physical growth,” explains psychoanalyst Harvey Rich, who switched careers during the second half of his life.

            The second common feature is Dreaming. This is an opportunity to try out different destinies – what psychiatrists call “omni-potential.” One day a teenager wants to be an astronaut, the next day a spy. One day a girl may want to have a baby, the next, run for political office. However, what that girl may actually do is stay in bed until noon, whenever she can. In school, teenagers are exposed to a smorgasbord of subjects from DNA to Chaucer. One sign of getting out of adolescence is when young people settle on what they want to do. For example, they may major in biology in college and that may lead to a job with drug company.

            In our second half of life, we can dream again. We experiment with different scenarios the way we did as teenagers. One day we may decide to take piano lessons, the next day we visit a museum. On another day we sign up to study the classics, or babysit the grandchildren, or volunteer at our local hospital. Or we can spend time in the garden. We don’t know which scenario may become our next “career” and we don’t care. It’s nice just to hang out for a while. School’s out, midlife is done. Many get in the RV and go!

             Author John Rowe calls this the “eighth day of creation” and says, “An extra ten years of good life on average could become an extra twenty. For some people, it already has. This is a world where 80-year-olds look and function like 60-year-olds. And 60-year-olds come across as 40-year-olds. This biological bonus is redefining what is old – and what is young. In the process, health span is rewriting the script of every aspect of your life, from work and family to politics and sex.”

            To get the most out of our middle-to-later years, we need to also face the inevitable challenges with openness and grace and learn how to best deal with them, or even transform them, so we can move forward with our lives.  Here are some common challenges we women 50+ face…

Regret. While everyone has some regrets, we don’t want to let them weigh us down. When we look back, we may see missed opportunities that are either real or imagined. Left unchecked, regrets can become overwhelming sources of anxiety. Obsessing over regrets can have a negative impact on mood, sleep, eating and alcohol use. However, regrets can also be powerful sources of inspiration, as levers and reminders to help us move forward in more positive ways.

When reviewing our lives, we may have doubts and insecurities about our life decisions. Did we do the job that made us happy? Is it too late to fulfill the dreams we once had? The children are grown, the house is too big, we are selling the SUV or mini-van, and we have too much stuff. As we look around, many of us question: Is it too late to start something new? Did we live the life we wanted?  How can we make the best of the years left?  Are we ready for something new? And importantly, how can we enthusiastically step into the unlimited possibilities these years provide?

            Loss. Everyone experiences loss. Loved ones die. Friends move away. Jobs and relationships end. We lose parts of ourselves – we can’t run as fast or see as well as before. Closing the office is a loss – the loss of a place, the loss of a role, the loss of a daily schedule. Children grow up and move out. Such losses, large and small, impact our lives, but we can learn important lessons from them, and we may even experience a sense of relief after loss. Some losses can free us from the past, and free us from the burden of “shoulds” and “oughts.” Sometimes, after a loss, we start doing what we always wanted to do and more fully enjoy our lives.

            Neuropsychologist Margery H. Silver, at Boston Medical Center, explains it this way: “With any change, there is saying goodbye. You are mourning certain things you cannot do anymore. In a way that’s a relief.  For example, I was unfortunately never good at sports when I was young. Then in midlife I took up tennis. It is too late to be great at it, so I decided I might as well just have fun. I got over that old loss of not being able to excel in sports and turned it into the gain of being able to enjoy it. It’s letting go of something, which is freeing,” she says. Silver adds, “Sometimes loss is more nebulous and harder to define because it is an internal occurrence – a deeply subjective experience.” 

            Fear. It’s helpful to face our fears about getting older if we want to move beyond them. Fear can arise when we get a wakeup call, whether a health diagnosis, decline of a loved one, or awareness of our more limited abilities. Such experiences might waken us to examine our choices. The good news is that the fear of aging can motivate us to look beyond our limitations and – while we still can – explore new opportunities that may generate more joy and fulfillment.

            Some Second Half women worry about poor health, or not having enough money, or the inability to do what they would like to do. Yet fear and worry can gobble time and keep us from enjoying the present and seeing future possibilities. When we are frightened, we instinctively protect ourselves, focusing on the danger or challenge directly in front of us. Sometimes, our fear is real and this is needed, yet often our fears are illusions that limit our creativity and inhibit our normal problem-solving skills. How many times have we worried about potential difficulties or troubles that never happened? When we move through and overcome our fears, we actually have more time to focus on what we want to do. Not only will our present time seem to expand, but our future will open up because we’ll be looking forward instead of backwards. We’ll be focused on solutions and possibilities instead of fears and concerns. 

            Sadness and Loneliness. George Leonard, a pioneer in the field of human potential and author of several books (including Mastery and The Life We Are Given), noticed an emptiness in some people in midlife that is often marked by an underlying sadness that rises to the surface “when we slow down long enough to feel it.” One person said, “I felt an incredible amount of sorrow for the loss of myself and the life that was passing me by.” Another shared that “a nagging sense of loneliness” consumed her, despite the number of people involved in her life. Such feelings can be the reason why some people stay constantly busy, since slowing down means unleashing the pent-up emotions that may build up over time. Yet, it is important to face our feelings of loneliness and sadness and accept them as a temporary reality, while working on creating new friendships, finding new hobbies and becoming more emotionally healthy.  

            Displacement. Sometimes women find themselves “displaced” at middle age, even when they were successful in their careers. They hope they will find another job easily, given their broad experience and knowledge. Yet it can be harder in our youth-focused culture to find jobs for people in their 50s and 60s. This can have devasting consequences for those who haven’t saved enough money to carry them through their lifetime. One solution is to become an entrepreneur, which has become easier, with more support available and different ways to secure an income. Other ideas include: writing a book; becoming a professional speaker; day trading; creating a website that offers products or services; becoming an independent life coach or counselor, etc.

            Death. Death becomes a part of our Second Half experience. We lose our parents; friends or relatives die, and such occurrences motivate many of us to face our own mortality. They shake many of us from our lives of complacency. Contemplating death provides us with an increased sense of urgency to live meaningfully, to appreciate our lives more, to continue growing and learning, and to be more aware of what we want to do. Now is the time to listen to those inner thoughts and yearnings; a time to discover a deep purpose in our lives.

Moving Forward

            Change is often frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Do we look for new possibilities and (perhaps for the first time) look outside of the proverbial box to see the unlimited opportunities that surround us?

            At this time of our lives, it is important to review and sincerely consider what makes our hearts sing. Have we spent our lives doing things we disliked to make money for things that we believed would make us happy, but didn’t?

            During our Second Half we should spend quality time considering what brings us profound joy and fulfillment. Each season of our lives has offered us valuable lessons. Now it’s time to carefully assess and learn from our past, and to stand on the foundation of those lessons as we move into the future with vigor and grace, and with good intentions and joyful anticipation.

            Today’s women can be more powerful, more resilient, more capable, just as desirable, and even happier as we age. Midlife is a wake-up call for some, and a self-imposed crisis for others. Let us listen to our inner voices that will guide us to find passion, fearlessness and unlimited possibilities.

            And, if you are concerned that your life took a wrong turn somewhere and you didn’t become the person you intended to be, it is not too late. If you feel a yearning within to change, listen to the call that compels you to become the woman you have always wanted to be. Reach out to someone and get support. We encourage you to explore new possibilities, discover new gifts, develop new talents, and connect with other women heart-to-heart. It is our hope that during the second half of your life you will experience immeasurable joy and fulfillment!

End notes:

1 Barbara Sher, It’s Only Too Late if You Don’t Start Now, 2004.

2  Abigail Trafford , My Time, 2003.

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