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Healthy Aging

Healthy Mind

How to Cope with a Later-Life Crisis

If you or a loved one is going through what seems like a midlife crisis a little later in life, here’s help from a Johns Hopkins expert to understand why it’s happening, and how to come out stronger on the other side.

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Research Shows
Better with Age

Here are a few qualities that research has shown we can celebrate as we get older.

  • Decision-making skills. According to a study published in Psychological Science, the insight and life experiences adults acquire over time make them better equipped to make tough decisions.   
  • Empathy. Researchers have found that women aged 50 to 59 were more likely to make an effort to relate to different perspectives.  
  • Perception. A study published in the journal Psychology and Aging shows that older adults were better than younger adults at discriminating between faked and genuine smiles. 

If current life expectancy is 78.7 years and adulthood begins at age 18, your midlife crisis should hit around age 48. But the definition of midlife crisis, as first coined in 1965 by psychologist Elliott Jaques, was a bit vague on the specifics. He didn’t specify an age or give any concrete symptoms. It is merely described as a time when adults contemplate their mortality and the waning years they have left to enjoy life.

And truthfully, that can hit at any age, says Johns Hopkins geriatric medicine physician Alicia Arbaje, M.D., M.P.H.

Recognizing the Feelings

If you find yourself spending too much time looking into the rearview mirror of life, you may be experiencing a midlife, or later-life, crisis. You’re not alone: In fact, recent research found that one in three people over the age of 60 will go through this experience. Here are some of the signs—and the psychology behind them.

You’re over age 50.

For many people, the mid-40s is the time in life when our future isn’t a scary unknown, our past is something we can laugh about, and our present is filled with marriage, kids, careers, and a general satisfaction in knowing who we are and what we want out of life, says Arbaje. So it’s not surprising that we may feel melancholy beyond our 40s, when the future can once again seem uncertain.

Your family is driving you crazy.

Middle-aged people aren’t inherently more stressed-out than younger folks, but the type of stress is different, says Arbaje. Research shows that only 8 percent of young adults reported no daily stressors, compared with 12 percent of middle-aged adults (ages 40 to 59) and 19 percent of older people (ages 60 to 74). But the midlifers were more likely to experience conflicts involving children—so getting older can bring more relationship stress with friends and family.  

You feel lost and lonely.

When researchers from another institution examined the factors that contribute to psychological well-being, they found that some are genetic, but some are based on having a sense of purpose and a good social network. As we head into retirement and bid adieu to careers, if we’re not careful to stay active in other ways, we risk losing our social networks and sense of self-worth, says Arbaje.  

You’ve experienced a recent loss.

Research has found that another key trigger of later-life crisis is loss, especially bereavement. Loss of someone close can bring you face-to-face with your own mortality, bringing you down if those feelings aren’t confronted and resolved in a healthy way, says Arbaje.

Moving Beyond the Crisis

So what can you do to deal with these feelings healthfully? “To start, I would recommend you stop thinking of it a crisis,” says Arbaje. “It sets you up for the idea that this is inevitable, instead of thinking about it as an opportunity for growth.” Instead:  

Reframe what it means to get older.

Instead of lamenting what you never did, or what you’ve lost, Arbaje suggests thinking about this time as a chance to take on new challenges and embrace life in a new way. For example, if you’re approaching or in retirement, you may have more time and freedom to pursue volunteering or travel.

Share your feelings.

Find a friend you can confide in—one who will let you answer the question "How are you?" honestly. You might find that your friend is experiencing (or has gone through) similar feelings and can share coping strategies. Research shows that writing (in a journal or a blog) is another healthy way of letting out feelings, and that can help minimize the chances of becoming depressed.

Enjoy movement.

Regular physical exercise boosts both your energy and your mood, and it reinforces your power to take charge of your own health and well-being. 

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