When the older generation were regarded as fonts of wisdom, our struggles and challenges were seen as positives — evidence of lives fully lived. We have lost that sense of respect for the process of ageing. We’ve become judgmental about ageing, intolerant of its physical aspects and the fact that we haven’t presented a perfect, sparkling life CV.
Every stage presents challenges. In midlife people are prone to struggle with regrets. We often look back with longing and regret rather than appreciating how we’ve got here and looking forward with excitement. How we think, feel and behave exerts a huge influence on whether our experience is difficult or catastrophic or whether it leads to unexpected opportunities — even contentment and joy.
Emotional good health is as much about learning to live with the negative as always being grimly positive. It requires forgiveness — of ourselves and others. It’s knowing and accepting that a successful life includes making bad choices and mistakes.
I turned 50 this month and a friend asked how I felt. “I feel I now have to be a grown-up,” I replied. Later it struck me as a strange comment. Why should I feel or be any more grown up than when I was 49 years and 364 days old? Hitting a zero number may feel significant, even prompt a crisis of identity, because society conditions us to feel a certain way, but in reality we can define ourselves.
It’s no fun any more
That sense of habit and comfort in a long-term relationship can slide into dull predictability where we eat in front of a box set. We secretly think: “Where’s the fun, the spontaneity?” You can reverse that by becoming interested in each other again. In the early stages of a relationship there’s a drive to be together and find out about each other. We reach a point where we think we know everything about our partner. We lose that sense of wonderment and what we once found endearing annoys us.
When we’re bringing up children or working hard, we can cease being a couple and start being partners in a company called Family plc. Relationships can fall apart when children leave home because you look at each other and wonder: “Who the hell are you?” We confuse not actually knowing each other with not liking each other.
Here’s how you can get to know each other again
● Start dating again, start asking questions, catch up. We change and develop. Try to discover your partner’s opinions, beliefs and experiences.
● Develop new activities together, and don’t forget to negotiate — don’t insist on learning salsa if one of you has a fear of Lycra.
● Learn to play again. When the children leave home, you may realise you need to relearn how to entertain yourselves and each other. Do things you did when you were young, but stopped because you were too busy.
You’re reeling from divorce
The number of older couples splitting up is at a peak. The Office for National Statistics reports that in 2014 in England and Wales, the number of divorces was highest among men aged 45-49 and women aged 40-44. This often happens when the family dynamic changes.
● Don’t focus on regret. Mental health problems today are often built round self-loathing and a sense of time lost. Regret can be pernicious. We’re obsessed with the pursuit of wellbeing. That sets people up in a negative way, particularly if we’re mourning the “failure” of our relationship. We think everyone is having a better life, but that’s unrealistic.
● Now is the time to appreciate stoicism, survival, determination in overcoming adversity, admitting mistakes and coming through them. This is the stuff of a life well lived. Not accepting the difficulties of the time of life we find ourselves in is part of what can cause those difficulties to become catastrophic.
● Allow yourself negative emotions. When a marriage breaks down, there is a sense of grief because you’re mourning a profound loss, including the expectation of growing old together, memories and hopes built around family.
You’re single again
● Whether you’re divorced, bereaved or reluctantly single, to be that person at the couples’ dinner parties is difficult. You’re often pitied, and women realise they’re regarded as a threat if they speak to someone’s husband. It can take everyone back to that primitive finding-a-mate stage of life where we’re territorial and suspicious. It helps if you choose carefully who you socialise with and create relationships with people who get to know you as you are now and do not hold memories of who you were in a relationship.
● If you want to find another partner, you still have to get out there and tell people about yourself, as you did the first time round, but it’s more complicated — everyone has baggage. Be aware of what that might bring in terms of stress and pressure. Are you inheriting acrimonious parts of a new partner’s life? Becoming a blended family might mean coping with their children resenting you or the ex being present in a difficult way. If your new partner is bereaved, their children may want to sabotage the relationship. Have honest conversations with your new partner about how to navigate those situations.
Your sex life
You’ve stopped being intimate
Sex is an important part of a relationship. One reason why couples stop having sex is that it can become functional, predictable and loses its edge. There are also times when you’re not attracted to each other, and you lose that lust of the early years. Yet also I see couples in their fifties and sixties with complex issues: perhaps the woman has pain during intercourse with no physiological cause; men may have premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction. These will cause their sex life to dwindle.
Sensate focus therapy is a clinical approach that couples can manage themselves. It involves going back to the beginning with sex, to rekindle and redefine the relationship. You set out to rediscover sex in weekly or fortnightly stages, beginning with no sex. You can hug and kiss, but you can’t touch breasts or genitals. This puts couples back into the mindset of sex, with boundaries. Every fortnight you progress a little farther. It takes you back to adolescence, fumbling on the sofa while your mum and dad were asleep upstairs. Sex becomes something you have to work hard to achieve.
Alongside this, couples can also think about when they last went out to dinner and just had a laugh. It refreshes a relationship because it takes a couple back to when they met. Why can’t you do those things at this age? Why can’t you just have a snog and then stop? When you get to your fifties, sixties, seventies, it’s easy to lose the nuance, the moments, the spark, the humour, the enjoyment of sex.
Sex is a letdown
If there’s a focus on penetration being the holy grail, it can make sex stressful. Men may have problems with erections as they get older and some menopausal women can find penetration uncomfortable because of vaginal dryness. The happier solution is to adjust our expectations — to move away from the porn-driven idea of what sex is.
● Use your imagination. Take a leaf out of the seventysomething rule book. Research shows that the generation who became sexually active before contraception was readily available are adaptable because the risks associated with penetration were so high. They learnt to be sexually creative. Think about sex being about communication and connection.
● Boost your body image. If bits sag or droop, some people avoid sex or certain positions instead of celebrating physical changes as an illustration of what their body has done. Shame and regret is life-limiting. Test your body in other practical ways until you regain a degree of self-belief; swim, walk, set yourself a physical challenge or simply be kind to yourself. We have to reboot relationships over the years, including our relationship with ourself. That change can happen only if we start from a place of acceptance. If you link your self-esteem to a narrow societal perception of beauty, when you age you will feel less of a person. It can help to take a long look at yourself and desensitise to the changes you don’t want to see.
Drinking is getting you through
Alcohol is automatically part of this generation. However, just because you still get on with your life and your marriage, and you’re still running your home and getting your children to school or university, it doesn’t mean to say that the alcohol you’re drinking — two large glasses or half a bottle a day — isn’t damaging you physically and at a mental-health level. Given that there are age-related declines in memory and physical fitness, alcohol will be perniciously underpinning and exacerbating those. Alcohol is a depressant, it makes us tired, we have poor-quality sleep and we gain weight. Alcohol dampens sexual desire, it causes problems with orgasm, erection and arousal. It anaesthetises when one is bored with life, job, relationship — meaning that you never address the real issue. Someone in their forties told me: “I don’t drink to get through my day therefore I’m not an alcoholic. I drink to get out of my day.” Drinking can become a way of filling space and of managing dissatisfaction.
You’ve forgotten about fitness
What is important in midlife for emotional good health is to keep fit. It’s basic, easy and free, but because we feel we should exercise, we treat it as a chore. However, if people who exercise regularly have to miss a session, most will say: “My head feels different.” The effect of exercise on mental health can’t be overestimated.
The number of people on medication for mental health difficulties would be significantly reduced if exercise became part of the fabric of their lives — in the same way that they make sure to watch their favourite programme on Netflix and chill the wine in the fridge. If there were an unequivocal rule of, “I’m not available on Monday nights because I’m at my class — this is what I do,” that lifestyle change would have a profound impact on overall wellbeing.
Menopause is getting you down
Menopause feels like a dirty secret that women are expected to accept and get on with. Going through menopause can be something of a bereavement; it marks a change in you physically. Some women experience depressive symptoms when they become menopausal because there’s a link between hormones and neurotransmitters.
The best way to manage menopause is to manage alcohol, watch your caffeine intake, take regular exercise and sleep well. However, it’s a big shift and can impact on your wellbeing and mental health function. That needs to be understood in a relationship and talked about. If symptoms become overwhelming, seek professional help from your GP or specialist gynaecologist.
It’s often that the older and lonelier you are, the greater is your belief that you’re unloveable. At this point we need to think more widely about how we define ourselves. Beliefs are like lenses in glasses: they refract and change the view. We can all look at the same thing, but experience it differently, depending on the beliefs that we hold about what we’re witnessing or experiencing. The older we get, the more entrenched certain beliefs become. These can be important, positive and life-enhancing, but they can also be life-limiting. If you spend all your time in your head, telling yourself what a bad person you are or that you are worthless — how do you address that?
Imagine that you are driving a car: see your life looking forward, but occasionally checking in the rear-view mirror. Your life experience will give you a sense of what’s behind you or what has gone before you, so you can learn to swerve and avoid obstacles that have blocked you in the past. Part of starting to see ourselves differently is to accept that we’re fabulous and we’re flawed. Learn to forgive yourself. If you know you’ve caused harm to others, make amends. Learn to define yourself by your interactions now, not what you may have done in the past or what you feel you might do later in a catastrophic way. Live for now.
Grief is crushing your spirit
Bereavement causes huge suffering, but we underestimate its effects. Despite friends and family, grief is often about feeling lonely among people. You have everybody to do something with, but nobody to do nothing with. That is loneliness. To learn to be truly on your own is a challenge because we are social beings. When you’ve been with someone a long time, you become the “other”. You can lose your confidence and sense of self-efficacy, because your partner is part of how you validate yourself.
● Keep social connections. It’s important in those moments of grief and loneliness to keep an eye on yourself, particularly in the early stages, to maintain connections with social networks and people you’re close to.
● Retain your skills. When we lose someone close to us we lose part of ourself. However, independent of your relationship with that person, there are talents and skills that are “you”. Those I see who do the best after a bereavement are people who plough on, however painful it is, who continue to engage, to give back. One widow, for instance, goes into school to help children with learning difficulties to read. She loves it. She feels useful.
● Have a one-day-at-a-time mentality. Depression is part of grief. It has an impact on concentration, motivation, focus. It’s about pushing through that, agonising though that can be. Make sure you eat well, sleep well, take regular exercise. Find ways to remind yourself, in a mindful way, that you’re still alive, that you still have a life to live and that you have value in what you still have to give.
● Consider a support group. Support groups are important, particularly if you’re the first of your peers to transition into this stage of life. You can feel alone among friends who are kind, but don’t understand your experience. A good website to investigate is itsgoodtotalk.org.uk.
You envy others, including your children
We talk about the impact of social media on the self-esteem of teenagers, but there are people in their forties and fifties who trawl through Facebook and Instagram looking at everyone’s highly curated look-how-successful-we-are lives and feel terrible. We must remind ourselves that social media is a false representation of reality.
Sometimes envy shows up closer to home. We are jealous of our children’s vitality and sense of adventure, and it makes us question ourselves. And it should. Ask yourself: “Why can’t I have vitality and adventure as well?” Where’s the rule that says ageing means meekly shuffling towards death?
Retirement is dragging you down
Perhaps we could ban the word “retirement”? Happiness isn’t just about pleasure; it’s about purpose. When people say, “I’m retiring,” it means they’re moving into another room or off to bed. It’s about withdrawing. It indicates that you’ve become less functional, have less purpose and your existence is less meaningful. Retirement should mean the opposite of this. If you want to stave off age-related cognitive decline, keep your brain busy. Travel. Learn a new skill, take up a hobby, do voluntary work. We should never stop working. The only difference is that when we retire we’re not doing a job to earn money.
Work isn’t fulfilling any more
The idea that we train in a profession and are there for life is old-fashioned. Identity formation is key in adolescence and early adulthood, but it’s healthy as we age to understand that identity is fluid. We never know who we are exactly because we change and evolve. Accountancy might have seemed the dream career when you were 22, but at 50 you might have paid off the mortgage and realise that for nine hours a day you’re bored rigid.
In your fifties and sixties, if you have a rigidly fixed sense of who you are and ought to be, you put yourself in a dangerous position mentally. The American psychologist Carol Dweck has highlighted the mental-health vulnerability of people who fix themselves in a mindset that denies them the possibility of taking risks, accepting challenges, making mistakes and understanding that success and progression through life are fluid.
This self-limiting attitude can apply throughout life. If we’re entrenched in a mindset and have rigid expectations of the future, change feels threatening. However, unexpected things can happen the older we get and we need to be flexible.
If you have become stuck in a rut, recognise that. Ask yourself when was the last time you did something that scared you? Change will stir things up, make life feel uncertain, and you might make mistakes. However, a healthy “growth mindset” embraces learning. We accept our errors, we keep asking questions, keep challenging ourselves. This mindset allows spontaneity and enables us to respond to the unexpected with emotional flexibility.
Doing things because you ‘should’
Younger people often seem surprised when someone in their seventies, or older, does something unconventional, shows a bit of individuality or get up and go. But, health permitting, why shouldn’t you be that person? There’s space to experiment, develop your sense of mischief.
Good mental health management means not believing every thought that pops into our head. I should be at home, baking cakes for my grandchildren. I should be taking golfing holidays for retirees. If a word you frequently apply to yourself and your life is “should” then invoke your adolescent self and counter that with: “Why should I?” Think, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Even if you do something ludicrous and make a fool of yourself, most people will react with admiration — and those that don’t probably envy your sense of adventure.