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All change! How to reinvent yourself in your 50s

While everyone is faced with multiple adjustments in middle-age, expatriates have the extra challenge of seeing their children return “home”

Empty-nest syndrome: an occupational hazard for people with children who move abroad.
Empty-nest syndrome: an occupational hazard for people with children who move abroad. Getty Images

Hitting 50 is definitely a turning point in our lives. We are half a century old. And though we are told that 50 is the new 40, that can sometimes feel like cold comfort.

Just as we are preparing to wind down, the world at large is determined that we crank it up. Something like a rebirth is expected of us, one that requires the energy of a hyperactive 12 year old.

Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “the only constant [in life] is change.” But does it have to be so intensive at this stage in the game, requiring us to be prepared for all eventualities?

Many of us will be faced with empty-nest syndrome when our children go off to study. And for expatriates that could mean to colleges and universities back home

According to psychologist Charles E. Baekeland, who gave a conference earlier this year on change and loss at the Colegio Oficial de Psicólogos in Madrid, “there is a developmental tendency to be more open to change when you are young, and to become more resistant to change with time. This maps onto the individual’s growing knowledge of sources of reliable satisfaction, self-perceived energy, and capacity to adapt to change. However, intensely positive events later on in life, such as falling in love, may open up a willingness to change that wasn’t available before; and in the same way, frustrating experiences will tend to reinforce going back to tried and true structures.”

Sometimes, however, there is no going back. During our 50s, many of us will be faced with empty-nest syndrome when our children go off to study. And for expatriates that could mean to colleges and universities back home. Suddenly, we encounter a new reality that leads us to question where we belong. Should we follow our children back to the country of our birth or adjust ourselves to the ensuing long-distance relationship from a country that might consequently feel less our own?

“There is no right or wrong answer here,” says psychologist Melissa Parks, who runs an online practice called The Intentional Expat. “When my clients are faced with this type of dilemma we focus on what their particular values are and how this could influence their decision. If family is highly important to you then moving closer to your children would likely lead to a very satisfying life. However, when our decisions come from a place of anxiety or pressure on how we ‘should’ live, we will usually be disappointed with our choices. An important thing to remember is that life will have its own particular challenges wherever you go. We can’t avoid the difficulties in life, but we can sometimes choose where and with whom we’d like to cope with them.”

But losing our children is only one of the many changes bombarding us during our 50s. Look at our bodies! How did that happen? When did those facial hairs get to be so thorny and the love handles morph into saddlebags? For 20 years, there hasn’t been time for more than the odd glance in the mirror between ferrying the kids around, helping with homework and buying them new socks and pants. But now there are endless hours that can be dedicated to studying the change.

Look at our bodies! How did that happen? When did those facial hairs get to be so thorny and the love handles morph into saddlebags?

In a global culture that idolizes image, these changes threaten to relegate us to the realms of the invisible, with repercussions in workplaces that always appear to be crammed with 20- and 30-year-olds prepared to work 12-hour days for part-time salaries. And here we are, the dinosaurs in the corner, expecting outdated sums of money while not understanding anything about “memes” or the finer points of SEO.

What happened to the people of our age in the workplace anyway? Did they all get laid off? Or did they simply grow tired of the McJob culture and downsize, shifting lock, stock and barrel to the sticks where the pace of change is slow, and do-it-yourself tasks are altogether more manageable.

Change poses existential questions of survival and extinction. Personally, I find myself putting one foot fatalistically in front of the other and hoping for the best. And while each change is like a mini death, I am determined to hold out for the emergence of new beginnings from the ashes. As Baekeland says, “any woman who is an expat, feeling a lot of pressure at work, divorced, going through the menopause, and whose children have gone back to their country of origin, is facing a great deal of loss on many different fronts; this will inevitably entail significant mourning and readjustments which must be recognized for what they are. This takes time, a time well-worth taking in order for the slow inner transformations to take place. This does not mean that the individual must be entirely passive during this process, but rather respectful of it and not attempt to hurry it along to gleaming success as fast as possible. As for starting over successfully, fresh perspectives can be very motivating, and a strong connection to one’s past provides solidity. A good place to start would be a clear-eyed assessment of reality, both external and internal, and priorities.”

Change poses existential questions of survival and extinction. Personally, I find myself putting one foot fatalistically in front of the other and hoping for the best

So onward and upward. The trick is to recognize the loss and then find new aspects of ourselves to focus on. As Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Sigrist (elisabethsigrist.com) points out, “if you don’t get the recognition you seek in the workplace and you’re overlooked for someone younger, you have to realize that is not all you are and let go. I always like to compare this with an eagle. The eagle takes off, it’s got a wide perspective and a sharp view and when he sees something it wants or deserves he swoops in and goes for it. If he doesn’t get it, it goes back up, sees the whole thing and if there’s another chance, tries again. It’s learning a kind of detachment.”

I like the eagle metaphor and am definitely going to work on my aviation skills. After all, it sounds like fun. An adventure. As author of meditative essays Enseñanzas de una Silla, Marta Lopez Blanco, puts it, “I want to be comfortable and secure, I make endless excuses to avoid change, but, with a smile, life nudges me towards it until I realize that, by accepting it, I can make it my choice.”

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