The 3 Life Lessons I Learned from Interviewing Dozens of Women Over 50

published Oct 2, 2018
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I never used to spend much time thinking about aging. I’m 29 and hang out in a mostly 20- and 30- something bubble in Washington, DC. Getting older was a vague, abstract concept on a far off, distant horizon.

But then I began seeking out conversations with ladies in their 50s and 60s. I had started a new job in innovation focused on women over 50, and embarked on a quest to uncover ideas by speaking with the target market. What started out as a casual research project for work grew into an exploration of womanhood, aging, and fulfillment for myself. Before I knew it, I had spoken with a diverse cross-section of women across the country and had accumulated hundreds of pages of interview transcripts.

In the safety of these interviews, women opened up to me about their dreams, their regrets, and what living a good life means to them. I couldn’t help but hear their greatest moments of fulfillment and joy as nuggets of wisdom, and their regrets and fears as cautionary tales.

Their experiences helped me realize that aging isn’t something that happens after we reach some benchmark birthday, but the cumulative result of the choices we make every day along the way. We’re all on the same train, headed toward the same ultimate destination. With every breath we take, we’re aging. And we have the power now, no matter our age, to decide whether we resist, surrender, or lean into our mortality.

(Image credit: Marisa Vitale)

Lesson #1: Live like you’re dying

For many of the women I spoke to, it was around age 50 that they began to really understand how finite a lifetime is. They told me the realization seemed to nudge them to shift their priorities to focus on what really matters.

One woman, a 57-year-old New Yorker named Miko, stumbled into her own mortality during our phone call together. “Right now is a transition time, where I’m coming to terms with the end,” she said. “I can see the end from here. So what do I want to be doing?” With, as she put it, two-thirds of her life behind her, Miko was approaching her remaining years protective of her time. She didn’t want to waste it.

Another woman, Angela, approached her mortality with fear. “Now is the scary part,” she said. “It’s sad to say but I see so many people our age going downhill.” She had regrets: things left undone, places she never went, and experiences she never tried. At age 62 living in Michigan and with limited mobility, many of those dreams were dying.

The night I spoke to Angela, I came home to my partner and cried. The mortality interwoven in her story, and by extension my own life, hit me. I didn’t want to be 30 or 40 years down the road left with regrets.

It was around this time that I had the idea for my partner and I to take a sabbatical together. It was something that I had always flirted with in the back of my mind, but with the new perspective from these stories, I began to see just how much freedom he and I have in this phase, where we aren’t taking care of young children or old parents. I decided that if making time for creativity was important to me, the time to go after this dream was now.

The point is, we don’t have to wait until our 50th birthday to start to appreciate the time we have. What are the things that matter most to you? What’s something you’ve always wanted to try? How can you make space for your priorities now?

(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

Lesson #2: Take time for yourself

These conversations also shifted my perspective on self-care. I used to think of it as a practice to help me have a better day, but now I see that taking time for myself is a long term investment in my longevity and well-being. Once kids move out of the house and elderly parents pass away, a new spaciousness can enter women’s lives. After decades of bearing the emotional labor for their families and communities, they finally have time for themselves again, which can be disorienting.

Emily, a 63-year-old in Virginia, told me that “For most of our lives as women, we decide if we’re okay based on how others are doing. Then we get to 40 or 50 and decide we’ll be our own authority over our lives.”

She told me about her long career in the Navy, followed by spending 14 years as a full-time mom, and then going back to graduate school so she could ultimately be a therapist. She explained how in quiet moments as a stay-at-home mom, she discovered new passions. “The kids would go to school and I had all this time on my hands. I was reading philosophy and taking art classes. Really, I was learning who I was. That period of time was about finding me.”

But for Barbara, a 60-year-old mom in New York, staying at home had an isolating effect. She always thought she would go back to working full-time, but never found something she felt passionate enough about. Once all her kids moved out, she struggled to let them go and find herself. “As a mom who was hands-on for so many years, it’s hard to not be now,” she told me.

Shaped by these conversations, I began to see my morning journaling as a vital investment in my long term sanity. Even when other responsibilities beckoned, I protected that sacred morning time as though skipping it threatened my very life itself, because I started to feel like it might.

Women tend to carry the bulk of emotional support in their families and communities, especially in the manic middle decades of life when we’re caring for kids and parents. But carving out time for ourselves is an essential act of self-preservation in the most literal sense. The most fulfilled women I spoke with didn’t dread the emptiness of an empty nest. They saw it as a chance to dive deeper into their marriage, discover new hobbies, and have more time for friends.

How might you build time for yourself into your day? Is there a part of your routine you could adapt or a new routine you might develop?

(Image credit: Marisa Vitale)

Lesson #3: We need connection

Perhaps most importantly, I learned that connection is at the center of living and aging. Being lonely can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In fact, isolation can increase the likelihood of early mortality by 26 percent.

“Every month that goes by, my house gets more and more quiet,” said Leah, a 54-year-old mother of five in Georgia. “As the quiet comes, you have to know that it’s a new beginning and find peace and happiness in it.” As she prepares for her last child to leave the nest, she’s looking forward to more time with her husband. “There is going to be a magnification of that connectedness with him. That’s true love. We’ll find space in this quiet to soak it in together.”

Linda, a 52 year old in Florida who just retired, used her new-found time to get more engaged in her local community. She went to classes, volunteered, started a book club, and spent a lot of time at the library. “I keep myself extremely busy. I’m always looking for new things to get involved in.” Her son is starting college this year, and though it’s a big adjustment for her, she’s looking forward to it. “I’m excited for my son, and I’m excited for my husband because I’m sure we’ll be closer. I feel like I’m in a great place. I love being my age.”

I now think of the dinners I host and my phone calls to faraway friends as part of my health routine—something as important as making sure I make it to yoga. Nourishing these connections is a way to help ground me when life throws transitions my way, whether they’re expected or not. The women I spoke to who were flourishing in their 60s and beyond were the ones who committed to intentional time with their spouse. They invested in their church group, neighborhood, or book club. They made time to be alone.

Who’s someone in your life you’d like to be closer to? What would it take to make that connection stronger?