A Late-life Crisis is Real and No Laughing Matter

Everyone jokes about the mid-life crisis where that guy between the ages of 40 and 50 buys the expensive red sports car, carries on an extramarital affair, and dons the gaudy jewelry and ill-fitting toupée. But did you know that the late-life crisis is a real thing?

Clinical research in Europe and the United States has found that one in every three people aged 60 and older will experience a legitimate late-life crisis, and the event is not gender-specific. It affects men and women equally, and it’s no laughing matter.

“Late-life crisis is real. Absolutely. It’s probably more so than the mid-life crisis, which isn’t research-based. The mid-life crisis is trendy for people to talk about and something they think they feel, but the late-life crisis is researched with case studies. There are many case studies showing that the late-life crisis is very common,” says Emily Simonian, the head of clinical learning for Thriveworks, a national therapy and counseling practice with 301 locations, including one in Bedford.


Illustration by Madeline McMahon

“This is a big topic right now,” adds the licensed marriage and family therapist. “In my practice, I counsel clients experiencing this.”

With life expectancy at 79.05 years in the United States in 2022 and the population continuing to age rapidly, the numbers of seniors finding themselves in this predicament will only increase. That’s especially true in New Hampshire, which ranks among the oldest states in the nation and continues to be one of the fastest-aging states.

So, what exactly is a late-life crisis?

When you find you’re dwelling on the past and focused on looking through the rearview mirror so that you can’t see what’s on the horizon or be optimistic about what’s in store for you down the road, you’re in trouble. That’s according to the recently published book “Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging” by Richard A. Leider and David A. Shapiro.

You feel lost, lonely and, even worse, irrelevant and invisible.

You’re stressed and maybe living daily life with the mind-numbing drudgery of having no sense of purpose, and you feel sad, likely desperate, or perhaps panicky in response to the challenges of aging, write Leider and Shapiro.

Most often, you’re regretful that your life didn’t turn out to be what you had wished, hoped or dreamed it would be at this stage, and you’re contemplating your mortality while watching the sands sift through the hourglass faster.

“In terms of symptoms, we see a lot of emotional and behavioral problems that are coming up.  Specifically, there’s anxiety, depression, loss of identity, loss of a sense of self-worth, disengagement from friends or family or any type of social support, disengagement from activities that they used to enjoy, or feeling a sense of hopelessness,” says Simonian. “These are the things that could be experienced. It’s not that everyone is experiencing all these things, but maybe a combination of some or many of them is what we’re typically seeing. That’s the same for any life crisis.”

Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic with its associated anxieties, isolation, depression, losses, and the element of fear in an already at-risk population intensified the distress for seniors dramatically.

There are multiple factors that can send someone into the downward spiral.

A divorce or separation, the death of a spouse or partner, family member, close friend or beloved pet, the decrease in physical vitality and mental acuity, relationship stress, retirement or the end of a fulfilling and rewarding career, money troubles, moving to a different home and downsizing, and moving to a different state or different lifestyle community are some of the triggers.

“Late-life crisis manifests by having a lot to do with social changes. Loss is the common denominator. These major changes that happen in life where your life potentially doesn’t look like what it used to, and that is because of the loss or because your role has changed. Maybe with your family you were caretaking for a loved one. Maybe you are the one feeling health effects, illnesses, or disabilities,” Simonian explains.

“Even positive changes that you choose can be stressful and can cause this crisis. When our brains register change, even if it is positive change, we have a negativity bias. I think that is a survival tactic,” she continues. “You think, ‘Oh, my god, something has changed, and I am trying to adjust. Adjustment is really hard for humans. We all eventually adapt and adjust, but I think it’s one of the harder things in life psychologically.”

The experts say that psychotherapy can be beneficial for anyone going through a late-life crisis. Individual treatment is a way to work out personal problems and make therapy unique to whomever the client is and whatever issues he or she is dealing with. Additionally, there are complementary practices and methods.

“In terms of the way you could cope and get through this, it is to find a strong support system, whether that is friends or engaging in some type of community or group, so you are essentially finding meaningful ways to continue your life,” Simonian says. “I will highlight again the importance of a support system. Make new friends, join a community center, take a class, volunteer.”

One of the most effective approaches is to reimagine your future.

“Look at different ways to view this season of your life. Look at it through a different lens. It’s not, ‘Well, there was one road and that was my career and now it’s done so I’m done.’ Find your new normal. Re-engage in your life instead of looking at it like you’re just going to disengage and feel bad. I think a lot of it is mental strength and changing perspective,” she says. “You could still feel a sense of purpose. It just doesn’t have to be the dream that you once had when you were 25.”

Telltale signs you’re having a late-life crisis

One in three people over the age of 60 will experience a late-life crisis, experts tell us. But how do we know when we’re having one? In their book on purposeful aging, authors Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro suggest asking:

  • Do you often find yourself looking in the mirror and thinking, “Who is this person?”
  • Do you feel reluctant to tell people your age?
  • Do you obsess about your appearance, trying to “anti-age,” to look younger?
  • Do you often compare yourself with others your age and worry that you’re not measuring up?
  • Do you often find yourself thinking about your mortality?
  • Do you avoid discussing with your loved ones what you would like for them after you’re gone?
  • Do you often question the value of your religious or spiritual beliefs?
  • Do you often feel down or empty for long periods of time?
  • Do you often feel detached from activities that once gave you pleasure?
  • Do you feel bored or stuck in your personal relationships?

If you are honest and answered “yes” to more of the questions than you answered “no,” it’s possible that you are in, or entering into, a late-life crisis.

Categories: Health & Wellness, Seniors