I can’t remember when I started to fall out with mirrors. Just as well, for on those occasions, when caught completely unaware, I suffer spasms of disbelief, espying on my stranger’s face a fresh new wrinkle here, a line digging deeper there.
In the mudslide of time, which seems to hurry into a fast receding future, I notice the stiffness in my knees, the pain on my back; hair, eyes, hips going into early retirement.
When we meet and catch up, usually over dinner, my 29-year-old son and I exchange battle stories from our respective frontlines. He says I don’t look my age—usually when I have to pick up the restaurant bill.
Here I am, of the baby-boomer generation that has enjoyed unsurpassed peace in our time, sexual liberation, contraception and plentiful pre-globalization jobs, feeling 27, not yet 60, and I swear there are days when I feel like a hundred.
That old chestnut—age brings wisdom—bah! Whoever sold us this lemon knew nothing about the wearying routines of daily living, the trough of despond, battling with the insults of adversity.
Age brings aging. As Woody Allen, the graying philosopher manqué of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, said: “There is no advantage in getting older.”
As you grow older, you carry your life (and your face) with you like an old battered suitcase. As you grow older, the body’s accelerating decrepitude is a given, even if you can afford cosmetic procedures. As you grow older, you are buffeted by the tiresome gymnastics of living and tormenting anxieties—the kind that trouble and keep you awake at 3 most sleepless mornings.
Perhaps your hips ache more; have trouble remembering names and faces, pills to take. The eyesight not as good as it used to be; maybe you need a hearing aid, a knee replaced; maybe you’re turning into a grumpy old bore.
Our lives are now marred by disappointments and slight hurts. Friends and loved ones disappear entirely and with alarming alacrity from our lives and orbit. Life is now inexorably rushing by.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I wake up in the morning, I stretch my limbs to check if I still have full use of them. Is the old ticker beating normally? When I get up gingerly off the bed, is my world spinning round in a dizzying spiral? Or, thank God in His mercy, did I have a restful night, and is that birdsong I can hear outside my window?
With better nutrition and improved healthcare, we can now expect to live well into our 80s and beyond. After all, we are of the “Third Age”—of 60-somethings still zesting for life, defiantly refusing to get old, enjoying liberating freedoms that senescence brings: children now off our hands; mortgages paid off; not caring anymore, or not as much, about status, possessions, double chins, killer heels, the remembered ecstasies of wanton kisses, the unforgettable love. Would that this were always so.
Would that it were possible to just slip into an embarrassment of leisure, into a ruminative time of winding down, taking it easy, seeing the world, taking up new enthusiasms, sailing into life’s magical garden.
Maybe it’s the age of anxiety we live in, but we rather find ourselves in this arc of time, without a map or a guidebook, and it’s like finding your haplessly fearful self in enemy lines.
In the US alone in recent years, there has been a marked increase in suicides, alcoholism and drug abuse among baby-boomers who have lost jobs, homes, health and families. It’s spreading like wildfire.
In the UK, there’s been a distinct surge in divorces among the 50- to 65-year-olds. A report on this “looming crisis” says the problem will get worse, with “silver splitters” facing an epidemic of loneliness.
“We are taking it for granted that older people will look after each other in later life,” said Ruth Sutherland, head of Relate, who sponsored the study. “Relationships are changing, and we can’t rely on that any longer. There are three pillars to happiness in old age—health, financial security and a good quality relationship. If you don’t have the third, you don’t have anyone to share the first two with.”
The soul-eviscerating financial crisis has meant that money is no longer as bountiful and available in the most agreeable ways it once was. You’re lucky if you’re still a fully paid-up member of the class of wage-earning slaves. The sacrifices and economies required of a frugal existence can cast a shadow over life.
Adult children who had already left home to strike out in the world, forge careers and start their own families have come home again, like boomerangs, with debts, failed dreams and pink slips. They’re “kippers”—kids in parents’ pockets eroding retirement savings.
As anorexic as its accounts may be, the Bank of Mom and Dad has very little option but to stay open. We could all die, said Graham Robb, of diseases collectively known as lack of money.
If parents are still alive, there is the prospect and reality of looking after them, with their attendant frailties and chronic medical problems, visits to retirement homes, hospital wards and waiting rooms. The direction of their travel—and ours eventually—is death.
If you survived your quarter-life and midlife crises relatively unscathed, congratulations! But commiserations are probably not far behind, for according to the recent study by eminent psychologist Dr. Oliver Robinson, one in three of us will suffer a transformative “later-life crisis” in our 60s, leading to either decline and mental health problems or to growth of a recalibrated kind.
“Our study suggests that the 60-69 decade is a turbulent one, a key time for developmental crisis,” Dr. Robinson wrote. He describes this period of life as a new awkward age and that until very recently, if people managed to reach 60, they just enjoyed what time they had left. Now, the baby-boom generation still has many years ahead of them—what Martin Amis called the “silver tsunami” years.
“It’s not a delayed mid-life crisis,” he said. “Nor is it about retirement and people freaking out because their work routine has gone. The research shows it’s linked to bereavement and loss—the death of a loved one or close relative— or an illness or injury to themselves or caring for ill or disabled loved ones.”
Emotions surrounding later-life crisis involve grief, intimations of our own insignificance and mortality, an awareness of our own frailty and susceptibility to illness in our own old age. “It makes people very conscious that they have a limited amount of time left,” said Dr. Robinson. “For some, there is no redeeming feature of this crisis. It simply accelerates decline and disengagement from life, sometimes spectacularly.”
He added: “While some never recover, not dealing with it can accelerate decline. People should not be ashamed of having this experience or about seeking help.” According to the study, a later-life crisis is an opportunity to accept the reality of irretrievable loss, to reappraise previous aspirations and values.
Some react by retreating from the world, becoming more and more isolated. Some bear it with resilience and a positive attitude; setting new, different and achievable goals; focusing on loved ones and the present, and not on an unreachable past or an unknowable future. “We are,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard, “condemned to live life forwards and to understand it backwards.”
When our mother died, we children were bereft; when our father died, we were disconsolate. I was only 43 when I lost my husband, when I too died a kind of death and lived with his unending absence.
You could say I experienced an early later-life crisis. The world, you know, could truly turn on a dime; I have learned not to waste time or take anything for granted, for every day can feel like borrowed time, and everything we have is only on loan to us.
According to Dr. Robinson, those who survive the crisis recognized the symptoms and sought help; who appreciate every day as if it were a gift, determined to enjoy life more.
When we pray for someone to lead us out of the desert and into the Promised Land—wherever that may be—we ponder religious abstractions in search of consolation and spirituality that might make this time of life easier to bear.
We insulate ourselves against despair by cleaving to family and loved ones; keeping old friends, making new ones, having a strong support network; socializing more by joining clubs, volunteering, and taking up well-populated hobbies.
Examining your sense of who you are and what you have become, what you want to do in the time remaining and shaping your expectations to realistic proportions. Not indulging the fashionable angst about the futility of human existence. Cauterizing your fears and anxieties as best you can, not wallowing in self-pity which, as Gore Vidal once said, is not box-office hit.
Be active, keep fit and keep working, for income is a great lolly to have; there really is nothing sexy or appealing about being poor, especially in the butt-end of our days. It may be far distant, but think about your legacy, what you leave behind; and then prepare not to go too turbulently into that good, long night.
If kismet knocked on my door with a late love, why, I will open the door and submit to providence; what shall betide. “Life is short,” wrote Mark Twain. “Break the rules, forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly. Laugh uncontrollably. Never regret anything that made you smile.
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So, throw off the bowline. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the tradewinds in your sails.”
Now lift up your chin—and also your heart.