About five years ago, when my husband and I were still in our forties and going through a personally difficult time, a friend offered us some words of encouragement. “Hang in there,” she said. “It gets better in your fifties.”
You know what? She was right. My body would probably disagree with those who say the fifties are the new thirties (menopause is real, people), but having now scaled Mount Half-Century and charted a few years on the descending side, I have to agree with my friend.
After the craziness of the forties, when it seemed job, children, finances, aging parents, and hormones were waging mortal battle to see who could claim the biggest part of my sanity (Billy Squier, anyone?), the fifties so far seem to be reminding me that hiding somewhere in this aging frame is someone who used to know how to sit and read a book and look at a sunset. If you’re still on the uphill side of 50, whether that means dealing with dirty diapers, contending for that promotion at work, or trying to figure out what happened to the body you used to recognize, take heart. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
To be sure, hitting the 50 mark is a wake-up call. None of us in our heart of hearts really believes we’re ever going to die. Death is something that happens to someone else, or to my pets or my houseplants. (In my case, to all my houseplants.) But to me? Impossible!
Then one day you wake up, and not only have your twenties passed, but your thirties and forties as well. Your own children are grown or almost grown and your house startlingly quiet. Both of your parents are dead, and that comforting wall they used to provide between you and your own mortality is in ruins. Suddenly, it’s no longer they who need to think about living wills and powers of attorney and long-term care and burial plots—it’s you. For the first time in your life you can be fairly certain that you’ve lived more of your days than you have remaining.
Along with that realization can come some unpleasant realities. Such as: if you aren’t already a millionaire, you’re probably not going to become one. If you haven’t made it to the Olympics by now, it’s probably not gonna happen. Also: Botox, gym memberships, and teeth whitening treatments notwithstanding, you’ve probably looked as good as you’re ever going to look.
Still, there is comfort to be had in one’s fifties, on all those counts. If your forties are the decade in which you continue to try with all your might to beat back aging while wringing out whatever molecules of ambition and drive are still lurking within your middle-aged breast, the fifties are the decade in which you realize the futility of the fight, kick back, and accept the inevitable while enjoying another drink on the patio.
Without further ado, here are just a few reasons the fifties rock.
1. Nothing Matters As Much as It Used To
You see, we’re all gonna die, sooner than we think. It’s just that you young whippersnappers are still in denial about it. But for those of us on the down slope, it’s easier to put it all in perspective. The bad day at work, the bitchy friend, the fight with your mother, the speeding ticket—when compared with impending death, none of it seems like as big a deal as it used to. So don’t sweat it. You only have so many sunsets left. Enjoy them.
2. Years Do Develop Wisdom
Everything they say about the wisdom of years is true. Much of youth is spent figuring out who you are, what you think, what you like, what you want to do, and how to do it. With any luck, by the time you reach your fifties, the big questions have been answered. Republican or Democrat? Coffee or tea? Rum or vodka? Rare or well done? Mac or PC? Instead of spending time and energy sorting through the overwhelming information onslaught that is modern human existence, those of us in our fifties (and beyond) can spend time enjoying the things we’ve figured out we like and skipping all the stuff we know we don’t.
No more time wasted on substandard chocolate, cheap booze, or poorly cooked steak. By the time you’re 50, you have either learned to cook the steak the way you like it or have enough money to go out and order it to your specifications. You’ve also learned what you can and can’t eat, what your body is capable of, and how to hold your liquor, meaning you are able to enjoy the good things of this life without going overboard and injuring or otherwise making yourself sick.
3. You Can Finally Accept Your Body
Those wrinkles that were merely teasing you in your forties, tending only to make themselves obvious when you were low on sleep or in a bad mood, have made it clear they’re here to stay. But once the shock wears off, there is a certain freedom to be gained in the realization. Because you’re in your fifties, the standards are lower than they used to be, and less is more.
You can quit trying so hard. In fact, the older you get, the more ridiculous an overdone hairstyle, too-heavy makeup, and an excessively flashy outfit can become. You can cut the time spent on all of them and give it to all those things you’ve finally figured out you really like (see No. 2).
4. People Respect You More
Simply by virtue of your age, you get more respect. When you decide to weigh in on a topic, people listen a little more closely than they used to. Your restaurant waiter calls you “Sir,” and the checkout girl offers to have your groceries loaded in your car for you. You can send back the imperfectly cooked steak and do so with an air of authority. Before long you’ll be able to start taking advantage of senior citizen discounts. This is not a bad thing. Your time is short. Might as well make the most of it!
5. You Finally Have Time Again
Ironically, at the same time that you are becoming more aware of the dwindling nature of your remaining lifespan, there is more time in the individual days: time to smell all those flowers you have spent the last 30 years ignoring; time to reconnect with friends and family members who, like you, have been too busy living their own lives and raising their own families to sit and chew the fat with you; time to start making and checking off lists of the books you haven’t read, the movies you haven’t seen, the places you haven’t been and still want to go.
Of course, then you need to find the motivation, which can be hard, since there’s always that patio, that sunset, and that second cocktail. . . .
6. 50-Year-Olds Are Cool
Research suggests it is not until our fifties that our personalities reach their most stable level of development. In other words, not only are we smarter and more experienced in our fifties, we’re less inclined to act like jerks. We’re more comfortable in our own skin (droopy though it is becoming) and more adept at social situations. We’re exceedingly good company, all the way around.
The foregoing list, while serious, is also a lighter look at aging, and not meant to minimize those whose fifties are anything but lighthearted. While our fifties are a decade with great potential for fulfillment and enjoyment, they can also be pure hell. It seems like every time I turn around a friend is getting diagnosed with cancer, or worse. Many of our parents are dying, and being 50 doesn’t make that hurt any less.
Some of us are losing jobs, and when we do, we may find that we aren’t as marketable as we used to be. Unfortunately, there is usually someone younger who can do the job just as well and look better while doing it. Then there are the marriages that inexplicably fall apart after having made it this far. Bottom line? Life is hard, and being 50 doesn’t change that.
But turning 50 (and 51, and 52, and 53, and . . .) can also provide an opportunity for a reset, a fresh start, a new lease on life (feel free to supply your own motivational cliché). In the movie “The Way We Were,” in one scene Barbra Streisand’s character Katie Moroskey says to her husband Hubbell Gardner (Robert Redford), “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.” Hubbell replies, “Katie, it was never uncomplicated.”
They both have a point. Life is never uncomplicated. But when you’re 50 (or more), you’ve survived a big chunk of it. Congratulations! Now go kick some butt in the second half.