Just when you thought you were safely past the “midlife crisis” stage, along comes a new study asserting that the decade from 60 to 69 is prime time for a totally different kind of crisis.
Oliver Robinson, a psychology professor at the University of Greenwich, presented his findings at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference last week. Robinson, who literally wrote the book on how personality and mental health are affected by major life transitions during adulthood, recently conducted a study of several hundred people over 60 and found that more than a third were undergoing a “period of questioning the meaning of their life.”
This 60-something “developmental crisis” is different in nature from the familiar midlife crisis, in which people in their 40s tend to “take stock” of their careers and accomplishments. As reported widely in the British press, this later stage is often triggered by two or more episodes of loss or bereavement, which are frequently followed by illness or having to care for an incapacitated loved one. When those events occur close together, people’s coping abilities can suffer and they may experience a decline in physical and mental abilities.
(MORE: A Midlife Career Shift Against All Odds)
Midlife Lemons Make Tasty Lemonade
Seeking more insight into Robinson’s findings, I turned to a few experts closer to home. Carol Orsborn, a psychologist, author and blogger for her own Fierce With Age as well as Next Avenue, remarked, “The only surprise is that it took so long for researchers to question the old stereotypes of aging as a developmental wasteland: either a slow, sad decline or a placid serenity.”
She pointed out another study that cited 42 different life changes that impact people at midlife and beyond. Of Robinson’s report, she said, “I'm glad this study came out, but I have to say that I think it's a mistake to label all problems that arise at certain developmental stages ‘midlife' or '60-year crises.’"
in our 60s, people almost inevitably begin to face some of life’s heavier issues, most notably mortality, which we’d been able to avoid earlier in life — “aka denial," as she put it. But she feels it’s erroneous to view this stage only in negative terms. “If one is developmentally prepared to break denial, the very act of being in crisis can be experienced as a powerful way to create meaning,” she says.
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Crisis or Wisdom?
Louis Tenenbaum, an expert who helps people make successful housing decisions at midlife and who has also written for Next Avenue, reminded me that the late geriatric psychiatrist Gene Cohen believed that it was only in the later years of life that people reach their pinnacle of mental capacity and make better decisions. Cohen felt that it was only then that the irrational, emotional and subjective can truly mix with the rational, allowing fuller, more complex reactions.
Tenenbaum further noted that there’s a reason Jews aren’t supposed to study Kabbalah until their 40s. “By their 60s and 70s,” Tenenbaum says, “many more people are capable of that sort of introspective, experience-informed thinking. The mystical becomes approachable. The giving over to the kind of ‘crises’ researchers are describing is actually what wisdom looks like.”
Where the Rubber Hits the Road
My personal gripe with studies is that their findings seldom match my personal experiences or that of my friends. So I reached out to a few in their very late 50s and 60s. All of them have taken their share of “lumps” — everything from serious disease and losing a parent or partner to being fired or struggling with wayward children.
Their comments ranged from humorous (“Like ‘spinster aunt,’ the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ should be banned from the lexicon”) to the serious. “I feel very positive, very satisfied with my accomplishments,” Joe A. said. “I have plans for the future. I don't feel like I've had any midlife crises. I see every new day with a positive feeling.”
As any respectable card player will tell you, while luck is one factor, ultimately success doesn’t depend on the hand you’re dealt but how you play it. You cannot control what cards come your way, but you can learn to be a masterful player. And so it is with life: The only thing you can be sure of is that you can be sure of nothing.
My friend Joe, by the way, is 64 and seven years ago lost his wife of 25 years to a brain tumor and wound up selling the dream house he’d spent years building with his own hands. But his optimism and willingness to always forge ahead is inspirational to everyone who knows him.
To me, no matter what befalls us, the most important takeaway is finding the blessing in it — however impossible that may seem at the time. Not to minimize people’s true pain and suffering, but by shifting our perspective, as Orsborn and Tenenbaum observed, we can turn crises into occasions for transcendence.
(MORE: How Women Can Reinvent Their Careers After 50)
3 Lessons From Midlife Crises
- See loss as liberation. When a top-level magazine editor was fired a number of years ago, it took her awhile to adjust to her new lifestyle. What started off as a traumatic experience led to her achieving a new level of success as an author, plus more freedom and flexibility — and it taught her to become her own tech guru.
- Find opportunities in unexpected places. Doing the same thing in the same way forever is precisely how one gets into a rut. Fear often prevents us from trying new things. But when life forces us to shift — when our partner dies or our finances take a hit and we have to continue working — if we see the opportunities to stretch in new ways, it won’t feel like a bitter pill or that the gods are punishing us.
- Remember: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Every major (and minor) religion has this as its bedrock. Emotional or spiritual growth doesn’t happen when we’re all happy and cozy. It’s life’s challenges and problems that afford us the opportunity to shift our perspective and begin to understand, and accept, the deeper meaning of our experience here on earth.