Am I Having a Late-Life Crisis?
Am I Having a Late-Life Crisis?
By Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro Staff

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?

Weve all heard the inspirational quote, Theres a reason your windshield is bigger than your rearview mirror; where youre headed is more important that what youve left behind.” But for many people in later life, its all about that mirror.

Countless numbers of elders—and probably most of us at some time during later life—are way more focused on whats in the rear view than on whats ahead. This is not necessarily a problem, but if it prevents us from dealing with—or even really seeing—whats 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 its 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 were an active ager” embracing the experience of later life; the next were 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 well 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 weve lived up until the crisis point. If we generally feel fulfilled by a life well spent, were 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 were in the midst of a long arc of dissatisfaction that has been simmering for some time, were 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 dont 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 somethings missing, when it seems like were 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 well be able to move through it. Asking ourselves a series of questions, like those that follow, can help us to see whether were experiencing a crisis.

  1. Do you often find yourself looking in the mirror and thinking, Who is this person?”
  2. Do you feel reluctant to tell people your age?
  3. Do you obsess about your appearance, trying to antiage,” to look younger?
  4. Do you often compare yourself with others your age (and worry that youre not measuring up)?
  5. Do you often find yourself thinking about your mortality?
  6. Do you avoid discussing with your loved ones what you would like for them after youre gone?
  7. Do you often question the value of your religious or spiritual beliefs?
  8. Do you often feel down or empty for long periods of time?
  9. Do you often feel detached from activities that once gave you pleasure?
  10. Do you feel bored or stuck in your personal relationships?

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, its possible that you are in (or entering into) a late-life crisis.

So, what can you do if you know that youre in (or on the cusp of) a late-life crisis? How can you successfully move forward?



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.


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