Surviving the Midlife Crisis

Dear Age Smart:

My father is in his 50’s and just bought a motorcycle. The other day he mentioned that he is planning his first skydiving trip. I’m concerned that this is the start of a mid-life crisis. Is there anything we can do as family members to be supportive?

-Watching from the sidelines

Dear Watching from the Sidelines:

This is Len. Ah yes, the dreaded midlife crisis. Been there and done that and believe it or not I survived the ordeal. And, I am quite sure, so will your dad. I have become increasingly convinced that most men and women alike, need to break out at some point in their lives and grab for the gusto or even be a little crazy. We do it in different ways (and at different times in our lives). I, too, bought a motorcycle, when I was in my 50’s and have two beautifully crafted tattoos emblazoned on each arm and a very tasteful earring adorning one of my ear lobes to show for that period in my life.

Of course, what your dad is doing may or may not be the prelude to a mid-life crisis. A 2013 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair telephone poll of U.S. adults found that the majority of women think that a man’s so-called mid-life crisis is usually nothing more than an excuse for him to behave badly. But mid-life crises do not always lead to inappropriate or risky behaviors. For some, it is a time to learn new things, break some bad habits, or broaden their horizons. It can be the impetus to lose weight, start exercising, or finally take those piano lessons you have been talking about doing for years on end.

The “crisis” can be brought on by a number of things including but not limited to being bored with your daily routine, a feeling that life may be passing you by, or dissatisfaction with your current circumstances (such as your health, work, or personal life). The real giveaway is if your dad is making a number of extreme changes in his life very rapidly. Don’t be concerned unless those changes which may be occurring at home or at work qualify as being truly bizarre or reflect dramatic alterations (usually for the worse) in mood.

Most experts encourage those who are concerned about a man who may be experiencing a mid-life crisis to stay calm, not be judgmental, and be especially sympathetic of the fear he may be feeling (it could be fear about his future physical health, financial well-being, approaching retirement, or not accomplishing all that he had hoped for in life). You and others are encouraged to pay attention to him since he may be feeling neglected or misunderstood. All too often, men are unable to express their feelings openly and accurately and those who care about them are, in turn, apt to dismiss or overlook the emotional distress they may be experiencing. Maintaining or re-establishing emotional connections are particularly important during a loved one’s mid-life crisis.

I would predict that more and more 40, 50, and 60 somethings will be experiencing midlife crises as the baby boomers grow older. After all, they are the first generation of significant rule breakers and risk takers who will likely not want to go quietly into the night. I’m afraid your dad’s behavior may be reflecting just the tip of the iceberg in that respect.

I would also hazard to guess that you (yes you!) have been spontaneous and out of character at some point in your life – and if you haven’t, I predict you probably will at some future point in time. Maybe your parents got anxious about your risky behaviors as a teenager but likely were not able to prevent completely you from doing what you set out to do. We should all be able to offer sound and thoughtful advice or just serve as a sounding board for those we care about and perhaps be more forceful in what we say and in our actions in influencing someone’s behavior if they are a minor.

Ultimately adults need to take responsibility for their own actions and deal with the possible consequences. The oldie but goodie from the seventies “It’s My Life” by the Animals comes to mind. The lyrics go like this:

(It’s my life and I’ll do what I want) Don’t push me
(It’s my mind and I’ll think like I want) It’s my life
(It’s my life and I’ll do what I want) And I can do what I want
(It’s my mind and I’ll think like I want) You can’t tell me
(It’s my life and I’ll do what I want)

And, remember, George Bush Sr. celebrated his 90th birthday by going skydiving in Kennebunkport, ME and he did just fine. I would not call what President Bush did part of a mid-life crisis since he was entering the ninth decade of his life, but there is a lesson to be learned. Adults of sound mind and body, have the right to exercise their freedom of choice at any age.

Take a breath and hang in there “Watching from the Sidelines” – Dad should be just fine.


Len Kaye

About Len Kaye

Dr. Lenard W. Kaye is Professor of Social Work at the University of Maine School of Social Work and Director of the UMaine Center on Aging.