|Selfie: Marilyn and Chris at 63, Norway|
When the Big Six O comes around, many of us are heading for change. Often a big change—not necessarily good, but not necessarily bad. It can be a decade for coasting into retirement or putting on the gas and firing up for the finish line. Usually it’s up to you to choose what you’ll be doing now that you’re no longer figuring life out as much as you did as a youngster.
But, a good situation can be a bad situation; a bad situation can be a good situation. Humility, humbleness in the face of your longevity will make you think. What’s important? What can drop out of our lives? Who are we?
Our 60s hold surprises for us, as well as inevitable experiences that come with the decade. Honestly, it’s been a time of such major change and upheaval for me that it is almost impossible for me to think of what life might have been had I not left the east coast for California and if I’d remained healthy. Below are some reflections on things that you’ll likely encounter if you are younger when you reach this decade, or have already encountered if you are as old, or older, than I am.
Inevitable: Everyone knows that you’ll be headed for more doctors appointments than you’ve had previously. Cancer is often first discovered in your 60s. Arthritis creeps in. You might have a bad back, a bad knee or an aching hip that will require surgical repair. Your heart may skip a beat; a life of stress may have elevated your blood pressure. Even if you are in peak, tiptop shape, your body will let you know it’s 60+ years old.
Listen to it carefully.
With medical advances as they are today, early detection and intervention is key to making it to your 70s and even 80s and 90s. Finding a physician you like, who is caring and committed to your health is important. Without someone to guide you in this decade, not only will you feel frustrated, but also may waste valuable time finding out what is needed to make you heal.
|Selfie: 60th birthday, on a 5K run|
Surprise: Although today being 60 doesn’t mean you are necessarily “Old,” be aware that just like you were in your 20s, Generation Z and Millennials think you are Old. In fact, it’s likely that you will encounter something now discussed more often—ageism.
Ageism: prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly
Get ready for this. Recently, I experienced being on the wrong end of ageism when I commented on a Facebook discussion board with a group of mostly younger women. I was swarmed; younger, less experienced women found my comments offensive, when I had intended them otherwise. The swarming led to some sleepless nights and introspection. What had just happened to me? Did I deserve the outcry of vitriol I received? This sort of thing can happen to anyone at any age. But in my case, I felt old-fashioned and out of touch with the ultra-sensibilities in vogue today.
So, get ready to steel yourself for ageism when you least expect it.
Inevitable: Although you might be living alone with just your partner, you could be lucky enough to have grandchildren to spoil! Conversely, you may also have a 90-year-old parent with dementia. Enjoy them both as much as you can. Neither will last as cute-and-sweet or on the earth forever. I was fortunate to have my mother be active, funny and alert for much (but not all) of my 60s. I treasure the time I’ve had with her when she could converse and interact.
|Selfie: First day of Teaching 2013|
Surprise: You will likely have a younger, less experienced person as your boss or supervisor. It can be very demoralizing to have someone tell you what you should be doing who doesn’t have your wisdom or knowledge. When my husband and I came to UC Merced in 2013, we naively thought we’d be recognized as people on a mission with good ideas and track records of getting work accomplished. Both of us reported to people who under estimated us and didn’t see us for who we were. Chris decided to retire, and I went elsewhere where leaders knew what they were getting. Not being firmly in the driver’s seat in your 60s is something you will hope to avoid.
Inevitable: In science, this is often a time that folks walk into their labs and assess whether they have the stamina to do a final upgrade of aging equipment, take on more grad students needing long term commitments, or letting things gently age.
In the world of stable isotopes, if you are talented and/or have talented technical support working for you, there is a good chance you can keep your 5-year old mass spectrometer going until you reach 70. If that’s not the case, and the whine of turbo pumps no longer thrills you, perhaps it’s time to finish up that last data set and wrap up actual data collecting.
|Selfie: Son Evan, me, Chris, Golden Gate 2014|
In my case, at the ripe age of 69, I have almost as much unpublished data as I have data that’s in the press. I certainly don’t need more of it—and really what do I need to accomplish at this point in time? I have two or three major projects that I’d like to see worked into manuscripts: more hydrogen isotopes in amino acid papers, ecosystem study in California’s San Jacinto Mountains, and microbe-animal interactions.
I have been mulling over posting some of the mountain of data on Isobank (website) the newish web-based system for archiving stable isotope data. I am just enough of an old-fashioned person to cringe slightly at the thought of copying and pasting bits of data into a website that might be unforgiving. Let’s say it’s not something that “gets me up in the morning,” but I can knuckle down and give it a try.
Surprise: Old friends from 40-50 years earlier in your life suddenly are interesting to you. You feel like you’d like to get to know them again after a busy middle age. Now living in California where he grew up, husband Chris is thoroughly enjoying seeing his buddies from the early 1980s when they lived in a big group house in Berkeley. They tell old stories about the big parties they had, the good food, movies, and I’ve also noticed they switch their manner of speech to how they talked back in the day. Another example is my high school class’ 50th reunion happening this weekend. My former classmates are engaging as never before in their past and reminiscing about life as a teenager.
|L-R: Paul Sussman, Chris, Linda Dallin, Nella, Yosemite, 2019 |
Colleagues I’ve known for decades get in touch—maybe because of writing this blog. But I get a bigger sense that people just want to reconnect as they age. On Monday, I zoomed with a colleague on the east coast that I’ve known since the 1980s. It tickled me that he beamed and smiled when I appeared via video saying, “Isn’t this wonderful?”
Inevitable: People will expect you to retire—often whether you want to or not. Retirement is a very personal thing. Some abandon their life’s work entirely, while others like me continue on a limited basis. Finances change, of course. Sometimes for better, sometimes not. If you’ve reached 60 without a serious effort at putting money away, don’t skip a minute…save all you can.
Retirement may bring a change in where you live as well. My friend and frolleague Doug Rumble had a burst of creativity in his 60s, working on the development and implementation of the new large format mass spectrometers. He traveled the world offering advice, testing, and hanging out with the younger scientists who would run the labs. He made a leap from Washington DC to the west, now enjoying mountain hikes and spectacular geology.
Another of my frolleagues likes to make her department Chair squirm when he tries to gauge when she’ll retire. In the United States, unlike some European countries, you can’t be asked to formally retire. Wise universities and business often offer incentives to “move on.” Figuring out what’s best for you is the ticket: do you want to keep your lab or office? Or are you ready to move on?
|Old Friends: Jean Roggenkamp, me, Todd Miller, 2021|
Surprise but Inevitable: Some folks will not make it to their 60s: 15% of my high school class from 1970 passed away before or during their 60s. We often feel we are invincible, but as we approach our 60s that feeling often changes and disappears. I became more vulnerable and humble. Being slugged with a terminal illness certainly colored the majority of my 60s, but it’s not a time to give up and binge watch television. No matter your life, health or work status, continuing to do what you love is more important now than ever.
The decade of your 60s will zoom by faster than your earlier years, but I suspect not as fast as your 70s, but they aren’t boring or static by any means. Saddle up for an interesting ride.