Midlife lessons

“Be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur.” — Muriel Spark

Now in assisted living, my mother is battling vascular dementia and heart disease. Watching her decline, I often struggle to find the proverbial wisdom that comes with growing old. Does anyone really look forward to aging — especially in a culture that worships youth?

Even so, if anyone were to ask if I’d like to relive my twenties, my answer would be a firm “no.” I’ve reaped valuable lessons from the prolific fields of midlife, and wouldn’t trade them for the wrinkle-free skin of my youth. Here are just a few …

I’m grateful for (if not entirely thrilled about) the body I have.

I’ve finally accepted the fact that I’ll never be a size 4 and I’ll never be athletic. But I’m grateful that I can ride a bike and walk a few miles. And I’m grateful for Spandex.

I’ve never been into sports and my eyes glaze over when people start keeping score. Maybe I’m just wired that way, and I’ve stopped trying to pretend otherwise. I’m an artist and a writer — but that doesn’t mean I can’t be reasonably fit. I shop the outer aisles of the grocery store and try to eat all the veggies in my fridge before they rot.

Rather than focus on how much I weigh, I try to maintain a healthier lifestyle. My goal is to increase my energy levels and remain fit enough to embrace what life throws at me in the future — including, hopefully, grandkids.

Things aren’t necessarily better because they’re more expensive.

If you’ve never fallen under the spell of a trend or a designer label, you’re probably a candidate for sainthood. But most of us are suckers for status items and designer goods. Like kids who still believe in Santa, we believe the magazine editors who tell us we must buy pricey stuff if we want to be cool or beautiful.

Of course, some items are worth splurging on — but most are just a foolish drain on our retirement funds. If your closet is full of Coach bags you rarely use, you know what I mean.

I can’t tell you how many designer under-eye concealers I tried before making the happy discovery that a cheap one by Maybelline does the absolute-best job. Like seeing the naked emperor for the first time, it’s a thrilling when you get that quality doesn’t have to cost a bundle. It makes you feel like a grown-up.

Life is too short for long, boring books.

I think Socrates was in midlife when he reminded his followers that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Midlife is the time to ask ourselves why we keep doing the same things while expecting different results.

Until I hit my fifties, I still followed a lot of routines that worked when I was younger — like getting the same haircut every month for years. Even after my son left for college, it took me a few weeks to realize that I didn’t have to keep stocking the cupboard with his favorite snacks. And every time I bought a new novel, I made myself read it — no matter how boring it was. (I was an English major, after all.)

Life is painfully, beautifully short — and for that reason, I no longer feel obligated to finish reading books that don’t grab me by the third chapter. There are too many other things to check off my bucket list. Why waste an hour on anything that doesn’t feel truly worthwhile?

You gotta have friends and work hard to keep them.

She has many wonderful qualities, but my mother has always been a grudge-bearer — and I’ve learned some of my hardest lessons from her. Over the years I’ve watched Mom stew over every little thing that angered her. She’d get mad at her friends for the smallest offenses — things that barely mattered in the long run.

When her dementia and hearing loss got worse, it became even harder for Mom to maintain the friendships she had left. And it became twice as hard to open her mind to new ideas, new hobbies, new people. Mom’s doctors agree that her negative attitude exacerbated her decline — especially her heart disease.

Is there anything more heartbreaking than facing old age without a strong social network? Studies prove that friends are essential to our health, so I won’t stop encouraging my mother to socialize in her new assisted living residence.

At the same time, I know it’s just as important for me to make time for my own friendships. I’ll continue to practice forgiveness, reach out to others, and treasure the friends I’ve made.¬† — Cindy La Ferle¬†