Reprinted from Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Copyright © 2021 by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro.
Chapter Six: Am I Having a Late-Life Crisis?
We’ve all heard the inspirational quote, “There’s a reason your windshield is bigger than your rearview mirror; where you’re headed is more important that what you’ve left behind.” But for many people in later life, it’s all about that mirror.
Countless numbers of elders—and probably most of us at some time during later life—are way more focused on what’s in the rear view than on what’s ahead. This is not necessarily a problem, but if it prevents us from dealing with—or even really seeing—what’s on the horizon, it can be a sign of what has come to be known as the late-life crisis.
The late-life crisis, like its more famous younger sibling, the midlife crisis, really is a thing. Recent research has found that as many as one in three people over the age of 60 will experience it in some form.
The late-life crisis is characterized by dissatisfaction; a loss of identity; an expectations gap; and the feeling that life has peaked, so it’s all downhill from here.
Whereas the midlife crisis is typically about the loss of opportunities, the late-life crisis is more about the loss of relevance. Stereotypically, during the midlife crisis, you dye your hair and buy a sports car; during the late-life crisis, it feels pointless to even get out of your bathrobe.
Also, unlike the midlife crisis, which popular culture and the punchlines of late-night comedians tell us is mostly a guy thing, the late-life crisis is not gender-specific. Women and men seem equally likely to experience it.
The particulars of the crisis can be hard to pin down. Is it a time of massive change and reprioritization? A mysterious chasm between the past and the future? Or just a normal sad and panicky feeling of anxiety in response to the challenges of aging? In a word, yes to all of those.
The late-life crisis can be triggered by a crucible event. The death of a loved one, an illness, money problems, or even something as simple as no longer being able to complete that favorite hike or bend into that particular yoga pose can set it off. Or, it can simply be the mind-draining drudgery of more of the same. One day we’re an “active ager” embracing the experience of later life; the next we’re decrepit, feeling invisible and irrelevant.
Of course, outward changes acknowledged, the real crisis is taking place on the inside. Our response to the inevitable changes brought on by age is what determines whether we’ll experience crisis or have the mindset to reimagine our future. Will we get stuck in the past and overwhelmed by morbid thoughts about the end of life? Or will we draw upon past lessons and learning and focus instead on how to make the most of the rest of our life?
Part of the answer has to do with how we’ve lived up until the crisis point. If we generally feel fulfilled by a life well spent, we’re apt to have the mindset to glance back in the rearview mirror with satisfaction and to look forward through the windshield with hope. But if we’re in the midst of a long arc of dissatisfaction that has been simmering for some time, we’re more apt to feel despair when faced with limited years and what we take to be limited possibilities ahead.
Naturally, we all have days when we look in the mirror (figuratively as well as literally) and don’t particularly like what we see. “Who have I become?” we ask. “Who is this person in the mirror? And what are my real possibilities?” Such feelings are not necessarily a sign of the late-life crisis, but if they linger and really get in the way of our experience of living, they might be.
Most of us go through periods in our lives when we feel like something’s missing, when it seems like we’re off course or lack direction. But the late-life crisis is different. In the late-life crisis, we feel the clock ticking.
One thing is certain, however: the degree to which we are able to admit being in the late-life crisis determines the degree to which we’ll be able to move through it. Asking ourselves a series of questions, like those that follow, can help us to see whether we’re experiencing a crisis.
You might relate to a few of these behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. But if you answered a definite “yes” to more of the questions than you answered “no” to, it’s possible that you are in (or entering into) a late-life crisis.
So, what can you do if you know that you’re in (or on the cusp of) a late-life crisis? How can you successfully move forward?
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Richard Leider is the founder of Inventure—The Purpose Company, whose mission is to help people unlock the power of purpose. Widely viewed as a pioneer of the global purpose movement, Leider has written or cowritten eleven books, including three bestsellers, which have sold over one million copies.
David Shapiro is a philosopher, educator, and writer whose work consistently explores matters of meaning, purpose, and equity in the lives of young people and adults. He is a tenured philosophy professor at Cascadia College, a community college in the Seattle area.
For more information, please visit https://richardleider.com