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    The path to fifty, Psychologies, October 2011

    The approach to this landmark birthday can be shaded by apprehension, but our fifties may well be marked by fresh creative energy and freedom – with a little preparation, this could be your most fulfilling decade yet


    ‘I’ve never been bothered by landmark “zero” birthdays,’ says my friend Linda. ‘But the big 5-0 feels very, very different. I began to think about all the things I’ll never do, all the books I’ll never read, all the places I’ll never see. People respond differently when I tell them how old I am, and I’ve become preoccupied with my own mortality.’


    According to psychotherapist Corinne Sweet (, it’s not surprising that for most women, 50 is frankly terrifying birthday. ‘Fundamentally, we fear age and ageing because it represents the end of life. Other faiths have a more calm and accepting view of age, but we have no markers or rituals for time passing and we live in a very atomised way, instead of in a community that includes older people who can share the benefits of age with us.


    ‘For women it can be even harder because our culture is so “lookist”, sexist and ageist,’ she continues. ‘When you begin to physically decline it can feel like you’re losing your female identity.’


    For our grandmothers, perhaps 50 did feel like the beginning of the end. But thanks to advances in medicine and a healthier diet and lifestyle, we can expect to live, love, work and contribute for decades longer than previous generations of women (every day, the average Briton’s lifespan increases by between five and six hours). The baby boomers now hitting their fifties and sixties look set to redefine what it means to be ‘middle-aged’, not just by rocking up to Glasto every year, but also by remaining vitally engaged with our wider society, culture and politics.


    So while the old fears remain, 50 also represents an opportunity to transcend our sexual and maternal identities and take on a new role as ‘Queen of Your Own Life’, as one US self-help book seductively puts it. There’s no road map, nor much chance of sitting it out in the nearest rocking chair. But as Corinne says, growing older brings huge gains as well as losses; in wisdom, in the ability to ‘take the long view, relax a bit and smell the flowers’ and in the opportunity to ‘maximise your life skills and experience to work, learn, create or even change the world. Just look at Aung San Suu Kyi, who’s 66.’


    I’m only 44, but I’m acutely aware that the professional, financial and personal spadework I put in over the next six years will prepare the ground for a fertile and productive fifties, a decade in which I want to be embracing L. Tennant version 2.0, not hankering after my lost youth.


    After thirty years of being whistled at by builders, I feel more than ready to pass the baton on to the younger generation. It was fun while it lasted, but now it’s their turn. The nurturing, feminine, maternal part of me – expressed in the profound love I feel for my children and the pleasure I take in meeting the needs of my man – won’t disappear, of course; but I hope it’ll be balanced by a new creative drive and intellectual focus. Mothers spend years enabling others to achieve; at fiftysomething we finally get to be selfish – in a good way.


    But it would be stupid to pretend that some aspects don’t scare me. Slowed metabolism, sleeplessness and hot flushes I can cope with; but loss of libido, dry vagina and the ability to orgasm with relative ease? Talking to women who’ve experienced these menopausal symptoms (luckily they are by no means universal) makes me want to cry. They invented a pill to fix male impotence, but so far there’s no easy way to reignite a woman’s lost sex drive, and to me that’s almost unbearably sad.


    For my friend Melanie, illness presents a greater fear. ‘I nearly died of undiagnosed pneumonia a couple of years ago, and as I get older I find I trust my body less. Not only that, but friends are likely to be falling victim to serious illness in the way they weren’t in our twenties and thirties.’


    Worse, of course, is the prospect of parents becoming very sick or needing full-time care. Gail Sheehy is the American author of Seventies bestseller Passages, which looked for the first time at what a woman’s life might hold post-50. She argues that ‘the big passage for boomers today is caregiving’. But whether you are looking after sick parents or a partner, ‘it can be an opportunity to become more intimate with your mother or father, reconcile with siblings, or even jumpstart your life.’ When her husband became ill with cancer they packed up their lives in New York and moved to California, where ‘we fell in love all over again’.


    In Keeping Mum, Oxford professor of philosophy Marianne Talbot describes the 5 years she spent caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. ‘I didn’t have children or a partner and I loved living on my own,’ she says, ‘so I had to think very seriously about what the independence I was giving up. But when my mother died, I was able to feel I had done my duty, and was now free, and that was a great feeling.’


    Our fear of sgeing isn’t just about death, of course. ‘Losing your looks,’ says Melanie, ‘is as bad for a woman as losing his job is for a man.’ Slim and attractive, she admits to feeling decidedly queasy about being single in her fifties. ‘I have to say I feel very unbeautiful. I’ll be 48 in September and from a singles perspective I find it scary. How the hell do you date when you have the menopause for example? What about all your wibbly bits which wibble even more?’


    No wonder we’re obsessed with anti-aging products, treatments and more or less invasive surgical procedures when the model of feminine beauty to which so many girls and women seem to aspire is a grotesque and ostentatiously youthful hybrid of Barbie doll, porn star and surgically enhanced celebrity freak. Luckily there’s another, equally powerful trend in beauty, which is to look not 25 but like the sexual, confident, fit and glowing 50 you actually are. For role models, see Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Nigella Lawson and Vivienne Westwood.


    From a psychoanalytic point of view, 50 represents a hornet’s nest just waiting to be stirred up. ‘Clients who come to me in the depths of a mid-life crisis,’ says psychotherapist Jill Vites, ‘are often facing problems that belong to an earlier time. Your children reaching adolescence can bring up issues dating from your own teenage years. If you married a man who was more like a father figure you may suddenly find yourself rebelling against him. And of course if you haven’t had children, your menopause will take on a quite different personal meaning. But,’ she adds, ‘a crisis is also an opportunity to grow and develop.’


    As if all that personal turmoil wasn’t enough, professionally, too, fifty can be a challenging time. New Yorker Tracey Jackson enjoyed a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter, but as she neared 50 the work in her notoriously youth-obsessed industry began to dry up, prompting her to write ‘Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Why 50 is Not the New Thirty’.


    ‘I kept hearing this mantra, and I wanted to believe it,’ she says. ‘But almost nothing about being 50 is like being 30, and if you reach decisions based on that notion, then you will make terrible mistakes. It’s like hearing the weather man predict rain, and going out in your bikini anyway.’


    At fifty, continues Jackson, ‘you may find that your job is winding down, or if you’ve been a full-time mother that your children are going away to college. You may have to take care of your parents, even while your children still need looking after or financial support. Baby boomers are being squished between the older and younger generations.’


    Yet despite the forecasts of stormy weather ahead, Jackson herself is full of the joys, not of spring, but of her own personal Indian summer. ‘I’ve had pretty much the best year of my life,’ she says. ‘For me growing old gracefully means staying engaged, healthy and vital. I don’t want to be in denial about getting older, but nor am I ready to get wrinkled up and sit in the corner.’


    While losing your job is always horrible, when a career ends, whether through redundancy, a shrinking industry or personal choice, a door also opens to a potentially more fulfilling line of work – an opportunity many female entrepeneurs have eagerly seized. Deidre Alsey’s website was founded to support women who want to set up in business. ‘Not all women want to follow that path,’ she says, ‘but there does seem to be a process that we all have to go through which is letting go of past responsibilities and recognising that 50+ can be a very empowering time when we are able to explore new horizons.’


    Josa Young, 52, whose first novel, One Apple Tasted, was published when she was 50, says ‘I think one’s fifties are an extraordinary time. It’s only when your children have flown the nest that you realise the burden of responsibility you’ve been carrying for 20 odd years. I now feel the most tremendous sense of freedom and excitement about what the world has to offer.’


    Our deepest fear, perhaps, as we head towards 50 is the growing realisation that much-loved parents must inevitably die. Orphaned and bereaved, we find ourselves asking if we have the wisdom, life experience and patience to ever fill their shoes, or recreate the childhood home we could always retreat to in times of trouble. Yup, the buck stops here, but ladies, I think we can handle it.



    Turning 50: the upsides


    ‘There’s something decadent and wonderful about sex when it’s completely divorced from making babies’ Katie


    ‘I used the menopause as a springboard to getting fit; now I walk around the local park with friends, three and a half miles, three times a week’ Sarah


    ‘Seasoned women’ are ‘lusty and liberated’ and enjoy a surge of vitality in their love and sex lives, according to Gail Sheehy, author of Seventies cult classic Passages and, more recently, Sex and the Seasoned Woman.


    ‘Empty nest syndrome is a matter of perspective; embrace the liberation from responsibility instead’ Josa


    ‘Post-menopausal zest’ gives women a ‘second wind’ because changes in our hormones also change the way our brains function, making it the perfect time to set up your own business/change career/develop a whole new talent or interest


    ‘Fiftysomething women who find themselves out of job cope better than men because we’re more adaptable,’ says Melanie Cable-Alexander, 47, who has just founded, an online shop showcasing British products


    ‘I find I’m less and less bothered about status and more and more interested in putting something back while I still have time. Plus, I don’t care anymore d if the hobbies that interest me are considered uncool’ Helen


    Annie Tempest is the cartoonist behind much-loved strip Tottering-By-Gently: ‘My body is finally my own, after years of sore boobs. I just feel comfortable in my skin – and at 50 I’ve started training to be a sculptor, something I have always wanted to do’



    And some advice…


    ‘Don’t stop,’ says Jill Ruddock, author of The Second Half of Your Life. ‘Keep working and learning and even when you’re looking after children, try to keep a piece of you that stays for you.’ Also; stick to Jill’s ‘five a day’: stay connected to friends and family; cultivate a passion; find a purpose greater than yourself; exercise almost every day; eat well.  The menopause ‘is about leaving behind the woman who can give birth and finding the woman who can give birth to herself.’


    ‘For me,’ says 52-year-old Sarah Standing, journalist and owner of toyshop Semmalina-Starbags,  ‘turning 50 was not a big deal. But I think if you don’t spend your thirties and forties nurturing your own interests, friends and work, when your children start to leave home you might well wake up one day wanting to shoot yourself.’


    Barbara Grufferman is the author of The Best of Everything After 50 ( ‘If you’re feeling invisible, maybe it’s because you’re retreating,’ she says. ‘My message to women is, whatever your age, embrace it. Don’t try to look younger, just be the best you can be at your age.’


    Ceri Wheeldon founded women’s lifestyle website and social network Sharing experiences, offering mutual support and reading inspirational stories emboldens women to redefine their lives post-5o; afeter all, says Ceri, ‘Today’s baby-boomer 50-plus generation are more vibrant and forward thinking than ever before’.


    ‘If you sense a crisis looming with a parent who can no longer cope,’ says Marianne Talbot, ‘set up a family conference. Trying to cope alone is not an option. And identify the one, non-negotiable thing that makes you, you – and then make damn sure you get it.’


    For health advice on the menopause, including info on vaginal estrogen, go to The North American Menopause Society is another useful resource (


    Sarah Pennells is the founder of, which offers a wealth of financial advice to women of all ages. So how should women facing a fiftysomething divorce look after their financial security? ‘Make sure you get involved in the finances so you know exactly what you and your husband/partner have and where it’s invested. The shock of divorce is likely to be far worse if you don’t know how much you have as a couple and what you owe.’


    Sarah Walter, 45, recently launched online retailer ‘Most women will have to edit short shorts, strappy tops and very long hair out of their look. But of course you can go on being sexy. Look at Elle McPherson, who’s 48’


    ‘I’m a great believer in Plan B,’ says Tracey Jackson ( ‘Most people have some idea what they want from the years from 20 to 50 in terms of career and family life. You need to be just as focused and ambitious for the years from 50 on.’



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