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A new stage has emerged in the life cycle. This bonus period comes after middle age, but before old age. But no one told you that you have to write a new script in work and love to take advantage of this "extra" period. As James Firman, president of the National Council on the Aging says. "The concept hasn't sunk in.... We're all lost as a generation."
That is why I have written My Time -- to provide a guide to these bonus years. As a health writer I have seen how the longevity revolution has altered every aspect of the culture from sex and politics to the creative arts and family life. The emergence of an older, more vigorous population is the most significant social story of our times. The men and women who are chronicled in My Time are fit, energetic -- engaged and engaging -- thanks to recent health gains. They have something to tell you about finding your way in this uncharted territory of human development.
In the early, high-stress years of juggling children and marriage and job, you get pretty exhausted from meeting other people's needs. As one 30-something woman wailed at a college class reunion: "When is it going to be my time?"
My Time! It's here. Get used to it. And then get ready for the ride.
My Time comes when the primary tasks of adulthood have been completed, for better or for worse. Children have been raised. Marriages made -- and remade. Career goals have been achieved -- or not. You've paid the mortgage, filled out your resume. And then what?
It could be anything. Look around. My Timers are starting businesses, mentoring in schools, painting portraits, running for political office, getting advanced degrees, working on community projects, falling in love, renewing friendships, redefining marriage and family, nurturing grandchildren, and caring for older parents. All the while, they are searching for their spiritual center and changing their goals from getting ahead to getting whole and finding new meaning in life.
It is not an easy period. There are layoffs, mammograms, retirement parties. There are wrenching losses, too. The deaths of family members and close friends. Major illness. The loss of income, the loss of status in a culture geared to youth. For a significant minority, these can be very hard years. For many, this new phase involves some crisis and confusion.
Yet, it also heralds unprecedented possibility. Most people hold on to their health. You may develop a serious problem such as heart disease, but you are able to manage it and continue to live -- and live well. Researchers talk about the huge increase in "health span." Americans have gained on average 10 biological years. For some the gain may be greater. Today, a 60-year old could be about the same biological age as a 40-year-old in generations past.
"We need a name that connotes the dynamics of adolescence," says Harvard social scientist Lisa Berkman of the period when people realize they can aim for a new horizon. Indeed, you may go through a kind of second adolescence, a mercurial transition period between midlife and My Time. The primary tasks in this period are to break away from middle adulthood and lay the groundwork for the future -- just as teenagers break away from childhood and prepare for starter adulthood.
You get restless. Not so young, but restless. What are you going to do with the rest of your life? Chances are you will live for decades. You also know it could end tomorrow. You make peace with mortality -- and you live with a sense of urgency.
How do you master the Art of Reinvention?
Bernard Tresnowski of Illinois knows. He became a lawyer in his 60s. Marge and Bob Kitterman of North Carolina know. They started a new life as Care-A-Vanners, traveling the country in their RV and building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Aida Rivera of Puerto Rico knows. She counsels women who are trapped in domestic violence -- after she earned a degree to become a therapist at age 60. "I love it. In helping others, I am helping me," she says.
It takes courage to find new life. Mary Page Jones puts it this way. The Virginia native remarried at age 52, moved out of the country, and began all over again. "I've always come up to the abyss and stepped over. A lot of it is my faith. When I step into the abyss, my experience is that I'm always caught. Something good happens."
You protest. This is not the way it's happening for you. You're right. Everyone is different. You write your own script for this stage of life. But there are predictable patterns. The men and women on the pages of My Time can be your friend and guide. Their message is one of hope. The bonus decades can be a period of liberation and contentment. Losses are balanced by gains: the deepening of love, more purposeful work, greater opportunities to be creative, have fun, and help others. What's to stop you? If not now, when? Abigail Trafford