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Devastated by Divorce at 70, but Thriving at 102

Tips gleaned from Dr. McGarey's remarkable resilience after divorce.

This headline caught my attention: “A New Start After 60: I was Devastated by Divorce at 70. But at 102, I Know the Secrets of a Well-Lived Life”. Dr. Gladys McGarey, a sprightly woman with a neatly braided crown of grey hair atop her head, spoke about her recovery from her divorce. The interview appeared in The Guardian on June 5.

Dr. McGarey, a physician, said she thought she’d never recover from her divorce. After 46 years of marriage and six children, she was stunned when her husband, also a doctor and her business partner, asked her to sign divorce papers. He had started a new relationship. She couldn’t imagine a different life from the life she and her husband had built over decades.

People who divorce later in life face unique difficulties, such as:

  • Financial concerns when assets are divided.
  • Damage to emotional and physical health, due to age and stress.
  • Social isolation, especially when their social networks were built around their marriage, or if they have to move out of the community for economic reasons.
  • New living arrangements, including the need for affordability, accessibility, and proximity to healthcare sites.
  • Family dynamics as relationships with children and grandchildren are affected. They may need to adjust to new roles and manage potential conflicts, such as around holidays.
  • The legal complexities of a “grey divorce” can be challenging for older adults.
  • The emotional adjustment to divorce after a long marriage can be difficult when one’s sense of identity and purpose is disrupted. Grief, anger, anxiety, and hopelessness make recovery and adjustment very difficult.

The recovery takes time. Dr. McGarey says, “It’s not a matter of getting over stuff, it’s a matter of living through it. If you can live through the issues that you have been faced with, they become one of your teachers. It wasn’t until I was 93 that I really accepted it,” she says. “You get to that part where you can kind of hang on.”

Dr. McGarey’s description is one of patience, one-day-at-a-time acceptance, and a spiritual moment when she realized that she couldn’t continue to rage and cry.

At age 102 she realized that because of the divorce, she was able to find her voice, gain self-confidence and reclaim herself as an independent woman. She chose not to date again and continued to practice medicine. At age 100 she gave a TEDx Talk on holistic medicine. Her ex died in 2008, and Dr. McGarey continues to thrive today.

What can we learn from Dr. McGarey’s resilience? While I have previously written about recovery from divorce, my takeaways from Dr. McGarey’s remarkable hardiness and recovery are these:

  • Face the hardships and challenges with acceptance, knowing that you have your own strength to overcome obstacles.
  • Remember that there were times and memories of the marriage that you can treasure. Dr. McGarey went so far as to get a new license plate: BE GLAD.
  • Use the difficulties and problems as learning opportunities. Perhaps you will surprise yourself with your ability to overcome them.
  • If you have a faith tradition, draw on the strengths that your faith offers. The power of love is mightier than the power of anger/grief/worry/hopelessness.
  • Commit to your activities with passion, whether you are still working, volunteering, or have interests and hobbies you enjoy.
  • Don’t give up or become hopeless. Make each day the best you can, forgive yourself if you have a bad day, and remember that acceptance will come with time.
  • Embrace gratitude and hope in the face of hard times.

Dr. McGarey says that it took more than 20 years for her to finally accept her divorce. But she didn’t wallow in misery for all those years. She followed the process above. Research about how long it takes to recover from divorce later in life is mixed and unclear. It depends on your support network, your coping style, the circumstances of the divorce, and your overall resilience as you adjust to all of the economic, emotional, and practical changes brought on by the divorce.

If you are struggling to recover from your divorce, seek support from friends, family, and professionals who can help you develop coping tools. Practice self-compassion and trust that life will get better.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2023


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