One of the new mantras of aging in the twenty-first century is the refrain “sixty is the new forty.” Maybe. Good health and an impressive array of lifestyle options certainly make many of today’s sixty year olds look different compared to their parent’s generation. But appearances can be misleading. In their rush to celebrate biological vibrancy, sixty year olds could miss a crucial piece of information about what occurs developmentally on the journey to seventy. Biology is not psychology, and failure to appreciate the difference could leave elders uninformed and ill prepared for their final mission.
Sixty year olds represent an “in between generation,” meaning not quite middle age and not quite old. Developmentally, “in between” is an appropriate characterization of a transition period marked by “agenda crossover.” What do I mean?
Middle age and old age have markedly different developmental agendas. The transition between these age groups is not sudden. It is a crossover process where one agenda ramps off while the other ramps on. From a psychological perspective, knowing where you are coming from is interesting; knowing where you are going is essential. Here is where elders are coming from.
Middle age is dominated by two primary developmental tasks, the “mission” of being fifty-something:
1. Preserve stability in world of increasing personal volatility.
2. Reinvent purpose and direction for the second half of life.
The instability of middle age is well known. It is an involuntary passage into life changing currents that include death in the family, unsettled children, chronic illness, career upheavals, aging parents, and changing partnerships. It is a complex and sobering period that requires super-human effort just to “keep things together.” Truth be told, most of us don’t keep things together, but we do get better at coming to terms with the “physics” of how life operates, negotiating a fragile peace with a vast list of items that remain outside of our control.
The other task of middle age is reinvention in an environment essentially devoid of public goals. This is in sharp contrast to the clear marching orders of the first half of life, a period in which society offer young adults concrete guidelines for their life’s journey. Getting an education, landing a good job, finding the right partner, starting a family, and becoming successful are themes that inundate conversations in the first half of life. As such, they are a public refrain that define and reinforce social goals. And then, almost overnight, this social broadcasting mysteriously ceases. In middle age, public goals give way to private goals, a navigational shift in which life’s purpose and direction becomes like a 401K, self-directed with the increased burden of trying to sort through a long list of confusing and at times conflicting choices.
Despite the demands of the middle age, by sixty most adults have successfully adopted to the tasks. They have found their version of personal stability and made significant headway in defining what they want and where they are going in the second half of life. But beneath this success is a new set of developmental currents that are beginning to surface as middle age recedes. Their arrival over the next ten years will usher in what is arguably the most difficult and magnanimous mission in life. As Bette Davis remarked, “Old age is no place for sissies.”
Our final mission surfaces by age seventy, and brings with a profound impact on older adults and their families. The mission of middle age, stability and reinvention cross dissolves into a new set of tasks: control and legacy. Both are occurring in the deep currents of loss, both of time and capacity.
The battle for control in old age is well known but never fully appreciated by younger adults. Sadly, it can be overwhelming for older adults and their families, leaving both parties angry, frustrated, feeling unappreciated, and ultimately disconnected. Here’s why.
Older adults are watching control evaporate right before their eyes. Loss of health, family and friends, social status, productive engagement, driving, living accommodations, and control of money all conspire to render older adults dependent through a relentless series of losses. The reasonable response to this onslaught is to fight back, to resist all attempts to take control away. In many cases this means saying “no” without comment.
Equally compelling is the need to create a legacy, which may come as surprise to younger adults. A common myth about older adults is that they arrive at their advanced years with life figured out, part of an innate wisdom that comes with aging that brings clarity and closure to their seventy or eighty year pilgrimage. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Life on earth is perpetual seeking. Old age is no exception. Older adults have a mature perspective but a sobering list of difficult questions. For them, as for us, life’s answers remain elusive. Simply put, there is work to be done in the final phase of life to make sense out of what has happened (what it means) and what to do about it (final plot adjustments). This mandatory life review is consumptive and emotionally complex. It involves dancing with ghosts from the past, a return to places older adults thought they had left for good. From this involuntary reconsideration come the building blocks of legacy, the final version of a life story, the kind of mark it will leave, and how it will ultimately be remembered.
So the final mission of life is paradoxical assignment composed of lasting and leaving, holding on to what’s left while at the same time saying goodbye. As middle age adults advance through there sixties, they begin “out grow” the agenda of fifty-something as the needs of old age make their way to center stage. This cross dissolving of agendas creates an “in-between” zone that creates both confusion and opportunity.
Confusion comes from a new mandate to take more control. It is an involuntary paranoia that seeps into even the most mundane transactions where we start to feel the need to defend our control, a hypersensitivity that seems so out of character. Why are we fretting over a casual comment about our health, our looks, where we live, or what we are going to do with our money?
Confusion also comes from a new preoccupation with life review. Why are certain people long gone and apparently forgotten starting to show up in our dreams or in our associations with music, smells, or geography? Why are events from the past that seemed so settled suddenly coming up for reconsideration again?
It seems that just when we have trimmed our sails to currents of middle age, a new developmental storm sends us in a new direction. But with it comes a profound opportunity from knowing what lies ahead. Knowledge of the final mission, control and legacy, offers sixty year olds the opportunity to make “preemptive” choices before the transition is complete. What do I mean?
Opportunity lies in planning how control will be preserved going forward. This could be as simple as purchasing long-term care insurance, having overdue health screening tests or updating a will. But it could also involve a closer look at social networks, spiritual connections, and attitudes, which are all critical factors in successfully managing the loss of control.
Opportunity also lies in considering how legacy will be created going forward. At sixty-something there is ample time to take action on two fronts: repair and pioneering.
The greatest legacies have nothing to do with money; they are always about the human heart. Reaching out to repair important relationships, as difficult as it may seem, opens an enormous legacy channel. Our life story is not only what we have done but also who we are as expressed through our relationships, even the ones that ask the most of us again and again.
And we are pioneers. This could lead us at sixty into radically new pursuits and situations. Or it could mean a new commitment to a life-long passion. In either case, it expands our legacy by demonstrating our willingness to go further, look deeper, and break “new trail.”