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Life's Long, Lovely Afternoon: The Psychology of Middle Age

Growing strong in middle age.

If life were the Brady Bunch—a television show known to many of my generation—we middle agers would be Jan, the middle child, less interesting than Marcia, the eldest, less cute than Cindy, the youngest. For many years, researchers thought that nothing interesting happened in midlife. I beg to differ.

My colleague and I are writing a book about aging from mid-life through older age. She's in her 80's and I'm barely holding on to my 40's. As I sat down one day to write the chapter about my age group, I found my mind wandering. I wondered how my 15 year old son was doing in his summer pre-college program. I worried about my 10 year old's skin infection, being treated at his sleep away camp. I reminded myself to make time to call my elderly parents later in the day. My father, 88, is losing his hearing (for which he refuses to try a hearing aid, because so-and-so had a hearing aid "and it didn't help him nothing."), and his vision, making it hard to find activities he can still enjoy. His younger brother died recently, and he's feeling the loss terribly. Some days, talking to me on the phone is his only meaningful activity. My mother, 76, takes scrupulous care of him, minding his sugar count and making sure he takes his many medications. When he refuses to listen, she asks me to intervene. Time to yell at Daddy again, I sometimes think when she calls.

But that isn't all I thought about as my mind wandered. There was my career. As a psycho-oncologist and a writer, I find both paths nagging at me. Was I happy with the balance I'd struck? Was I even sure yet that I managed to strike a real balance? I thought about my home—where I do much of my work—and suddenly, my apartment seemed to call to me—"Clean me! Wipe my dust! Pay the bills on the kitchen table..." I thought about my ever graying hair. I once used to color it, but had since decided to embrace my middle age. As I sat at my computer screen, pondering the is that all there is'ness of life, I wondered if I wanted to stop embracing and start coloring again.

Some researchers suggest a different reason for the sparseness of the research on my age group - sandwichers are too busy in their multiple roles to devote much time to participating in studies! Finally, midlife started getting the attention it deserved in the last decade, since the creation of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development.

Eminent psychologist Erik Erikson suggested that every age group, from birth to death, has its own share of developmental tasks. The task of midlife is generativity. The young look forward to long futures. The old look back on the long past, while they focus on the present. Midlifers start out with as much ahead of us as behind us. And so, we generate. Whether it's children, ideas, or products, we generate and nurture. While raising the next generation of children, we also influence the next generation of colleagues and neighbors, either actively, through mentoring, or passively, by example. We nurture not only people and ideas, but also institutions. Psychiatrist George Vaillant refers to us as society's "keepers of meaning," a role we will continue into older age.

As we do develop through midlife, we begin to learn a lesson that will be particularly important during the next life stage; we learn the limits of what we can control. We start to encounter illness either in ourselves or our friends. We're a little slower, either our bodies are a little doughier or else it takes just a little more effort to stay in shape than it used to. The younger generation doesn't listen, in fact, it often flouts our wonderful advice. Perhaps we learn our advice isn't always as wonderful as we'd first thought. But we don't give up. We act. We guide. We grow, not only by growing ourselves, but by helping others grow too. We applaud our charges when they succeed, and we teach them to appreciate how much today's failures can accomplish for tomorrow. At the same time, we take care of our elderly parents, who sometimes turn to us for help as we once had turned to them. At the same time, we use the experience to learn the right lessons about our own impending elderhood. Even if what we learn is how differently we want to handle our old age. And yet, while learning the limits of what we can control in life, we often feel more in control of our lives than we have felt before, or will feel after.

And if there are moments when we ask if that's all there is, there are also moments when we answer, "yes, that's all there is, and that's plenty for me."

* Click here for my book with Dr. Jimmie Holland, Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging, Oxford University Press, about the positive aspects of aging, from midlife through older age.

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