Are you experiencing midlife challenges such as an aging body, caring for a terminally ill parent or preparing to launch your child to enter the adult world? Are you unsure on how to cope with these and other midlife challenges? To help understand common midlife challenges that people face and coping strategies for midlife challenges, I have interviewed therapist Julia M. White LCSW.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Denver, CO. I work with clients of all ages with a particular interest in adults in midlife and in their elder years. I myself am in my midlife years. I want to live my midlife and elder years to their fullest potential so I have a self-motivated interest in figuring out how to do so. In addition to my social work master’s degree from Smith College School for Social Work, I have a Certificate in Gerontology from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.”
What are common midlife challenges that people face?
“Common midlife challenges are: aging bodies, parenting teenagers, launching children into adulthood, caring for frail or dying parents, coming to terms with what you thought you would have accomplished by now with what you have and having a positive vision for the second half of your life.”
What type of impact do those challenges have on people’s lives? What are some coping strategies for midlife challenges?
“Injuries, illnesses, wrinkles and weight gain are all some outward manifestations of our aging bodies, which are hard to ignore. We have to come to terms with what we can and can’t control regarding our aging bodies. Nutrition, exercise, and managing stress have major impacts on our health and are well within our control. Midlife is a wake-up call for us to adopt healthier lifestyles if we expect our bodies to be of use to us in our elder years. However, it’s important to have realistic expectations of our bodies. If men expect their bodies to be as strong or to recover as easily from injury as it did when in their 20’s, they will feel constantly betrayed by their bodies. If women expect to have the wrinkle-free skin and metabolism of their 20’s, they too will feel betrayed by their bodies. Certainly, we can dye our hair, do botox, or have plastic surgery to give us a more youthful appearance. While there is a good argument that dyeing one’s hair doesn’t necessarily come with much of a cost, that can’t be as easily said for plastic surgery, neither monetarily nor in terms of risk of surgery and pain of recovery. I encourage men and women to thoughtfully reflect on what their goals are for their bodies, to be sure that their goals are realistic, and that they have weighed the costs and benefits.
Another sign of the aging body for women is menopause. Women have to deal with the reality of the end of their childbearing years, which may or may not be a difficult event for a woman depending on her situation. In addition, the decrease of sex hormones during perimenopause and menopause can have a major impact on how women feel both physically and mentally.
Figuring out how to manage menopausal symptoms is not straight forward. I encourage women to do their own research and to search for doctors who are willing to offer not only guidance but also flexibility regarding ways to manage menopause.
Parenting teenagers and launching children into adulthood is a challenge. Sometimes a woman’s daughter is going through puberty at the same time she is going through menopause, creating hormonal havoc in the household and making parenting a teenager even more challenging. Parenting teenagers requires not personalizing their often-obnoxious behavior. This does not mean a parent doesn’t set limits. It does mean that the limits are set without screaming and hurtful words at least on the parent’s part. It means picking and choosing your battles and giving your child increasing independence as he/she earns it with responsible behavior. Parents and children feel anxiety about their adult children soon leaving home. It’s helpful to acknowledge this even if your child won’t admit or isn’t aware of these feelings.
There is much more free time from parenting responsibilities when the children are off to college or working. Without the distraction of kids in the house, many couples have to face what’s not working in their relationship and decide to either work to improve it, ignore it, or separate. There is immense opportunity for those who decide to take an honest look at their relationship. For those couples that are already divorced, a child leaving home creates room for focus on whatever aspect of their lives that isn’t working optimally.
The empty nest syndrome is less of an issue for women now because so many women are working and, therefore, have more sources for self-esteem than in the past. That said, launching children is a major rite of passage with exciting feelings of freedom and sad feelings of loss all tied up together for both children and their parents.
Caring for frail or dying parents is an issue most of us will face eventually. This role reversal is difficult for both parent and child. The reality of our mortality is hard to ignore when we see our parents getting closer to death or are actually dying. We know that after them, it’s us. If we are caring for our parents or taking over decision-making roles for them, we are taking on a parenting role with our parents often after just launching our own children and thinking we were free of the day in and day out caregiving role. Or, we are parenting kids still at home while at the same time taking care of our parents. Often women still tend to take on the bulk of this responsibility. I encourage women to delegate and seek family or outside help to ease their burden. There are health risks related to being someone’s main caregiver without adequate support and breaks.
Coming to terms with what you have and haven’t accomplished so far in your
life: The woman who never had kids and wanted to; the would-be actor who never
made it in acting; the book you haven’t written yet and are wondering if you ever will; the places you’ve never been and wonder if you’ll ever go given the hit your retirement money took in this economy; these are examples of your life not meeting your expectations. How do you manage these disappointments? First, you acknowledge them and then pick them apart. Help yourself discover what about those things you wish you had in your life. What is it about acting that you loved? The joy of acting or the recognition and money you would have gotten if you’d been famous? If it’s the joy of acting, join a community theatre. If it’s the recognition and money, think about how often it appears that those two things don’t seem to bring happiness to people.
For the woman who never had kids, what has she been able to do instead? Has she had more time to succeed in her career? Has she had more energy to put into developing hobbies and other interests? Has she had more time to develop her friendships and romantic relationships? What are other ways to be a major influence on a young person’s life? Can she volunteer with kids, be a foster parent, or a fabulous aunt to her niece or nephew? After this process of examining where you are in your life, it’s important to look at the direction you want to head in the 2nd half of life. This brings us to the next challenge: Developing a positive vision for the second half of life.
If you’ve wanted to write a book, what’s stopping you? Make a plan and time-line for how you are going to accomplish your goal. If it’s not realistic to think that you will have enough money for foreign travel, what about domestic travel? There are amazing things to see by car in this country for much less money than international trips. If you’ve come to terms with what you have and have not accomplished, you are probably well on your way to a positive vision of the rest of your life. The beauty of midlife verses young adulthood is that you know yourself better and hopefully have a more refined sense of what’s important to you. Prioritize what’s important and weed out what isn’t. We are living longer than ever. Do so with the intention and the wisdom you’ve learned from your life lessons up to now.”
What type of professional help is available for someone who is having a difficult time coping with midlife challenges?
“There are many excellent licensed therapists qualified to help with midlife challenges. Shop around for a therapist who feels like a good fit for you. You will probably want a therapist who has some life experience. Feel free to ask therapists how old they are and what their experiences with someone with your issues are. Make this investment in yourself now so that when you get to your elder years, you can be at peace with the life you’ve led.”
Thank you Julia for doing the interview on coping strategies for midlife challenges. For more information on Julia M. White or her work you can check out her website on www.juliamwhite.com.
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