Middle-aged American women have the lowest well-being of any age group, according to a three-year study by Gallup-Healthways. Here’s an inspiring exception
My friend Anne is 58 years old and a poster woman for high well-being in middle age. She starts her day with meditation and a mean spinning class. She is addicted to veggies and vitamins and doesn’t smoke or drink. She is thin, solvent, and has a gaggle of good girlfriends and a live-out boyfriend.
Do you hate her already?
Anne is the polar opposite of the profile of today’s middle-aged woman. Middle-aged American women now have the lowest well-being of any age group, according to a three-year study by Gallup-Healthways. The majority are under high stress, trying to take care of everyone else: monitoring teenage children, caregiving for aging parents; working at a jobs they need to keep, and struggling with menopause. Given our obstinate recession, these women don’t find time to exercise or eat healthy. An increasing number are smoking, becoming obese, and developing chronic health problems at an earlier age than ever. Forty to 70% lapse into depression.
“If these lifestyles and the decline in well-being continue for women, we will see the first generation of women to begin losing the longevity dividend — five to seven years — they’ve traditionally enjoyed over men,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of the Age Lab at MIT.
So, how did Anne achieve an enviable state of high well-being by her late 50s? With courage and humility and the acceptance of help. It’s the story of a lifesaving midlife passage from which we can all learn.
Seven years ago, at 51, Anne was suicidal. Living in a remote corner of Massachusetts, she was locked in a chaotic co-dependent relationship with her husband. She had given up her job to help him write a book. Blocked, his for of self-medication was alcohol and speed. His behavior careered between depression and raging mania. Her teenage children refused to come home from school.
“I didn’t know who I was anymore,” Anne says. “How did I end up with this life? I felt very old. I was getting sick. I sensed that if I continued in that life, I would get cancer.”
A glass of wine at 8 pm was her way to turn off the terrified chatter in her head. Surprise, surprise! The bottle always seemed to be empty before ten. Her morning routine was coffee and a cigarette. Anne’s only discipline was running: five miles a day. She was skin and bone. “But it kept me sane.”
She tried giving up the wine. As the haze of creeping alcoholism lifted, she knew, subconsciously, that if she wanted to stick to sobriety, she would have to make a complete shift in her life.
“We have to get away,” she whispered to her 13-year-old daughter one morning.
The child exclaimed, “Yes!” and scrambled to pack her own bag. Anne left with no car, no job, no income, and $40,000 in debt. She moved in with her mother in a small beach town. It gave her a role – caregiver — and expense-free accommodations.
Over the next few years, she found a work as a human resources coordinator at a company that went national, paid off her credit card debt, and concentrated on repairing the damage to her kids. Those external changes were supported by a gradual physical, emotional and spiritual rebirth.
“That small beach community saved my life,” she says now. A prime candidate for osteoporosis, she began taking bio-identical hormones, which also lifted her mood and memory. The friends she found in AA helped her to try gentler ways to dissolve the stress. “I learned to meditate on the rock of fear in the pit of my stomach; I literally breathe it away.” She came to believe in a universal God energy that will guide her, if she allows it. “Once I began to open up to the possibility of change,” she says, “it became an adventure.”
Not all was smooth, of course. Dementia turned her mother combative and difficult to live with. Anne reached out to repair relations with her sisters and brother and the three tag-teamed harmoniously as caregivers. “Now I have all these new connections, and it’s given me new life,” Anne tells me.
She turned 58 last week. Her now-21-year-old daughter is working and happy to live with Mom, who takes her to spinning class at 7 in the morning. After class, Anne goes for coffee with the women friends who helped to rescue her. “That fifteen minutes is the best anti-stress medicine,” she says. It sets her up for the day.
“I feel much younger than I did seven years ago,” Anne continues. “I’m now 10 pounds heavier and much healthier.” She laughs, a big buoyant laugh. As long as I can borrow my daughter’s clothing, I’m okay.”
Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence.