I love a good travel guide. Before I take a trip, I dream and scheme, ask friends for advice, check every website, map and book, and schedule what will we’ll see, what I will wear, and how I will source my coffee (priorities!) Of course, my experience never unfolds exactly (sometimes anything) as I imagined. But it’s what I didn’t plan that is often the highlight of the trip. I understand that guidebooks are for planning, not for deciding. But the Virgo in me likes to be ready for the possibilities ahead. While I always pack too much, and I always discover something new, I am always happy I had a guide at the beginning.
Who better to be our travel guides for the adventure of aging with intention than those who are a few steps ahead? I envy my friends who are in their sixties and seventies, living a life they crafted themselves. They have the freedom, conviction and ease I thought would show up when I hit midlife. I presumed I would become mature and settle into myself when I turned 50 (just as I did when I turned 8, 17, 35 and 45). And yes, I am still waiting on the maturity part.
I asked my friends what actions helped get them to where they are now. These women are part of my tribe, and they are part of my motivation and inspiration… and proof that there is a place called maturity (and grace, energy, contentment and independence) waiting for me. If I am lucky, it might even include an umbrella drink and a cabana boy.
From the guides, Leslye, Vonnie, Elle, Penny, Nancy, Kathleen and Dorothy:
What I wish I knew when I was fifty….
Leslye: In general, I wish I had cherished my fifties a bit more than I did. Until I approached 60, I never had an issue with any age, I loved all of them and dreaded none. But at 59, I hit a big emotional brick wall and aging with grace escaped me for a good year. Had I known I would feel that way, I might have tried to more consciously enjoy my fifties and make every minute count.
Vonnie: It’s not going to be what you think it will be. But it will be ok. Having competency in your work or marriage doesn’t mean there won’t be white water. Travel while you can; let the kids take out loans. You can help them pay them back, but use your cash earnings for active things while you both have your health.
Elle: I wish I realized how incredibly fast time goes by at this stage of life. Blink. You’re 55. Blink. You’re 60. The years are glorious and rich, but they move at the speed of light.
Nancy: Important moments are happening right now, so drink it in while you are in this moment in time. Not always easy to do, but I knew it then like I know it now—at age 67.
Dorothy: I’ve been playing my cards as they have been handed to me as long as I can remember. I do remember that my 50th year was good. In hindsight, I would have done more to secure myself financially. I wish I knew that I would be living alone, without my best friend and lover.
Penny: You may experience another dimension of love by taking care of an aging parent (once you get past the “wrongness” of the role reversal). You will be astonished by what you discover within yourself in your 50s. (For me it was compassion and patience.) Usually it’s directed outward. Try to direct some of that inward. You deserve it.
This is what surprised me about life after fifty…
Vonnie: I was able to have more fun. The concern about the children’s safety and fear of poverty were resolved.
Leslye: That it’s true what they say. I had heard all about women ‘coming into their power’ after 50 but at least half of me didn’t believe it. Then I experienced it for myself and it was SO COOL.
Penny: Once your hormones stop driving you (and stop driving you crazy), the world looks VERY different. It’s rather cool! It’s like standing on a riser a little outside the action. Whoa – perspective!
Kathleen: How much I savor things now. The tastes, the colors, the textures of the day are so lovely, so fine. I can hear the words of the music from my teens–was I not listening then? Even without weekend workshops or the innumerable self help books, come moments of bliss, of incandescent joy… totally out of the blue. Fortunately the moments pass and I get back to work, otherwise I would just pick up a hiking stick and walk into the hills. Every time this happens though, a bit of that fairy dust clings and my self-made sufferings are less. Around 50 I was pushing with intense desperation to avoid some of the consequences of life. I grip the steering wheel a little less tightly now and have a better time. I do note I have had things pretty easy, my path made smooth by those before me who fought real battles. I have also been gifted with much love in my life and I still like getting up in the morning.
When I reflect back on my fifties, I wish I had …
Vonnie: Traveled on my own.
Elle: I wish I had learned earlier on that it’s okay to end relationships that are not serving me. I have a bad habit of holding on to people long after the symbiosis is gone, and the result is a lot of angst. The freedom I feel from walking away is profound.
Leslye: Put more urgency on earning and financial planning.
Dorothy: Bought more San Francisco property and Apple!
Penny: If there is anything I wish I’d done differently, it is this: If you stumble in your career or have a turndown in your finances, adjust immediately. Entrepreneurial people tend to be optimistic about their ability to pick up and make money again. It would be wrong to lose that optimism, but it would be right to “right size” your lifestyle immediately. Accumulating debt in your 50s is not wise; you will regret it more than any other stupid thing you said or did.
And when I reflect back, I know I did this exactly right…
Vonnie: Gone to graduate school and got the MFA, a useless degree but I learned how to read.
Elle: Married for the second time. For me, there is nothing—nothing!—like having the right partner.
Leslye: Moving across the country at 48 and basically spending my fifties making new friends, discovering new geography, doing new work, pursuing new interests.
Nancy: The week before I turned 50, I was diagnosed with an ovarian tumor, with one week from initial diagnosis to surgery. There was no way to know if I had cancer prior to surgery, only a guess at the odds based on ultrasound and physical exams and the odds were scary. If they discovered the tumor was cancer during surgery it would mean my life was going to be ending in a few years. That was one of the most important weeks of my life. It was also the best year of my life. Everything of value became crystal clear and my priorities adjusted to match. I felt myself more present and therefore connected to the people near me and to the people I loved. I felt fully alive, as I was fully aware of my mortality. I did not have cancer, but I try to hold onto that awareness and clarity. It is not an easy thing to always do and it helps to revisit that experience to re-center myself.
If I could give my fifty-year-old self three tips to prepare for where I am now, they would be…
Nancy: Stay present so you make choices that are true to who you are. If you do that you will end up in a place you want to be. Balance work and down time. Play more.
Vonnie: Work out/keep moving. Lose weight now because after menopause it is really, really hard. Don’t own other’s success more than they do.
- Don’t be frightened, but your perspective is going to shift when you realize that the bulk of your life is behind you, not in front of you. Try to be ready for this, but don’t let it stop you from looking forward…always.
- Healthy eating and lots of exercise really are critically important. Keep it up, because that kind of lifestyle is going to keep you as young as you possibly can be.
- Make more contributions to your IRA!
- Get in shape and stay in shape. The post-50-year-old body does not respond to crash exercise or fits and starts. You can avoid many aches and pains if you keep your activity level steadily moderate-to-high. Find something you love to do and do it often.
- Explore and exploit the career mastery you’ve reached. You are probably at the top of your game–seek out ways to use all your gifts and prolong this phase as long as possible, both for financial and psychological/spiritual reasons.
- Make a plan to see geographically dispersed family often, especially grandchildren.
Now that I am past fifty, I am looking forward to…
Nancy: Playing more and enjoying what comes with that. I am officially semi-retired and see this as another beginning in my life. I believe adventures just don’t happen, you have to make them.
Vonnie: Being able to say NO.
Leslye: Understanding and valuing my experience and wisdom, and finding ways to use it to help others.
Dorothy: I am pretty independent, and have been all my life. So I plan my day as I please with my friends, family or alone. I know I am very fortunate with what I have done, where I have gone, with whom I did it, and my family. I have loved with passion and lived with adventure…lots of adventure. I look forward also to doing more of the things that bring me joy—learning everything I can, sharing what I know, and traveling.
Elle: Discovering the person I’m going to become when I am officially old. I’m curious about her, although I’m quite terrified to become her. Will I be vital? Funny? Inspirational? Comfortable in my baggy skin? A pleasure to be around? Or will I be a crank, wretched because every semblance of my youth is gone? I’d love to turn into one of those outrageously elegant older women with a mine-all-mine style…someone to whom younger women are drawn because she clearly has wisdom to impart.