Starting Again in Middle and Later Life

As the healthy lifespan continues to rise, “starting again” will become more and more common. For some, the prospect is scary, for others thrilling and exciting. And, as with so many things in life, the attitude you adopt will shape the experience you have.

New Beginnings

People begin again for all sorts of reasons. First, and most obviously, there is divorce. The longer and healthier the average life becomes, the more pressure is placed on relationships. Indeed, late life divorce is now so common that this group has been nicknamed “the silver splitters.” Then of course there is career change. Some people begin a career in, for example, teaching, nursing, or publishing, only to reach their 30s and realize that this is not what they want to do. Indeed, the two changes are often combined: someone divorces and meets a younger, less conventional partner who encourages them to quit their job and try something else.

Then of course there are simpler, less dramatic changes, such as children leaving home. Couples often make the nurture of their children the center of their lives. When they grow up and move out, the parents are left empty and lost. Other people are made redundant or bankrupt in later life. Many middle-aged people lose both parents in quick succession which, if they have been the main carer for the last 10 or 20 years, can also leave them feeling lost, purposeless and adrift.

Some begin again for less obvious reasons. Those who suffered early abuse or trauma, for example, or whose teens and twenties were a blur of addiction and mental illness, may find that, thanks to counselling and the passing of time, they emerge blinking into the light, unsure what to do with the rest of their lives. Imagine someone who endured a trauma in childhood. Throughout their teens and twenties they were suffering with undiagnosed PTSD, which they treated with alcohol and drugs. In their 30s, a good therapist finally diagnoses this and the treatment is successful. They now feel reborn; but they are 40, single, childless and unemployed.

Of course, “starting again” is a vague phrase meaning different things to different people. Some split from their partner and yet remain in the same job and home. Others move to a new country with the person they have loved since High School. Some change literally everything. Then there is the question of age and temperament. Starting again at 40 is different to starting again at 60 or 70. And change is harder for a melancholic introvert than a jovial extrovert.

Health and Energy

Successful change depends on good physical health. When people eat poorly and fail to exercise, not only do they lack the energy to make changes, they also find that their mood drops and their motivation disappears. According to Dr. Charles Clark, author of The Age Revolution, the vast majority of health problems experienced in middle and later life are self-inflicted.

And it is worth adding that even the health-conscious usually believe they are healthier than they actually are. For example, almost everyone underestimates how bad their diet is. Quite simply, the vast majority eat too much and exercise too little. And what’s worse, they eat too much of the wrong thing, especially sugar and refined carbs. According to Laura Deming, an expert on ageing, anyone who wishes to slow the process down ought to begin by cutting sugar from their diet.

So cut down on junk food and alcohol, stop smoking, and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Next, begin an exercise regimen. But make this gentle and light. Above all, make it regular. As Dr. Clark writes in his book, “the body loves routine.” Get your body in good shape and you will have the energy and desire to start again.

Identity and Change

If you are starting again in some way, whether due to divorce, career change, or whatever it may be, the key is acceptance. Obviously, anyone can offer this advice, and those enduring a bitter separation or redundancy may resent it. But change happens, and resistance is often futile. However, you can choose how you will respond. Countless people will tell you that, bitter and traumatic as their divorce or bankruptcy may have been, in the long run it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Without it they would never have met the love of their life, written their novel, moved to Hawaii etc.

So begin with acceptance. The change has come, whether you want it or not. Remember, cynicism is easy, and so is bitterness. Resist the temptation to escape into the past. People often use nostalgia as an excuse – after all, if everything really was better in the past, why bother to start over? Instead, take an interest in the world here and now. Keep up with technology and the latest scientific discoveries. And seek out younger people. Do you have a niece or nephew, for example? Could you spend more time with them? Maybe you could volunteer to work with younger people. Being around the young will jolt you back into the present.

One of the biggest challenges people face is the struggle to develop a new identity. Take career change, for example. Imagine a 45-year-old man who has just divorced. He spent his life building a successful but unhappy career in law. Though he found the work dull, it was well-paid, and being an attorney gave him a sense of pride. He then meets a new partner, someone with little interest in career or money. She encourages him to leave his hateful job and move out of the city. “You love nature,” she says, “so why not get a job as a forest ranger instead?” But this will mean a loss of status. Sometimes, change requires a broadness of mind.

Divorce also brings a change in identity. People who divorce in mid or late life often see friends drift away, either taking the side of their ex or refusing to take sides at all. They are no longer part of a couple and so no longer fit into people’s dinner party arrangements. Women in particular often feel pitied and patronized when they separate in later life. Indeed, many are made to feel like they have failed. 

Changing your identity is difficult. And this is true even of suffering. Many people invest a great deal in their victim status. Often, they really have been victims: of abuse, neglect, addiction, mental illness etc. This identity or status (as abuse survivor, for example, or heroin addict), unwanted though it may be, can become a crutch. Without it, where are you? And what are you?

Not Giving Up on People

As people age, they often grow bitter, cynical, or bored with their fellow humans. But this must be avoided. Of course, it is understandable. People naturally grow a little jaded and callous with time. For many, this is an inevitable part of ageing. And there is a tendency to lose interest in people, to feel that you have seen and heard it all before, and that no one can surprise you now.

But this is often nonsense. It usually happens because people become stuck. They find their life partner, settle into a particular area, have children, pursue a career etc., and these things limit the types of people they meet. So, for example, a 50-year-old accountant, living in the middle-class suburbs of a small town, may have spent the last 20 years mixing solely with other middle-class professionals from the same town: he isn’t bored of human beings; he is bored of those human beings!

Starting again in later life, whatever form that may take, is rarely easy. If it is to be a success, it requires time, effort, and persistence. Above all, it requires courage.

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