Jennifer Gale, 56, remembers the moments just before her very first triathlon, a sport she took up at age 50 after her kids had moved out of home. “It was dark and it was raining. I had only just learnt how to ride a bike. I remember standing on the beach and thinking to myself ‘Oh my God, I wonder what other grandmothers are doing on a dark Sunday morning at 5:30am?’”
However, Gale pushed through to the end of the race and now says it was “one of the most amazing and exhilarating” things she has ever done. “I can’t describe it,” she says. “It was like winning an Academy Award and it drove me to do many more.”
Having been a non-rider and non-swimmer just six years ago, Gale is now a health and wellness coach and has launched her own virtual business Fit N Fifty +, which focuses on helping women 50+ to be fit, active and healthy. She also presents her own Fit N Fifty + iTunes podcasts and is the author of the book Fit Fab and Fifty +: Your guide to living actively for the rest of your life, to be released in March 2017.
From exercise novice to wellness coach, Jennifer has started her own business
For Charmaine Roth, 60, it was the completion of a post graduate diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy in her late 40s – and then opening her professional practice in Sydney that she remembers as one of her greatest life achievements as a mature age person.
“When I got my diploma I was so thrilled,” says Roth. “I did a lot better in it than in my university degree and I was so proud. I was also so happy to be able to be a good role model to my son and to show my daughters that there is life after children for a woman. That you can do it,” she says.
Think of the positives
Gale’s first triathlon and Roth’s academic achievement were more than just personal victories, they were the first steps in life transitions that saw them trade jobs they no longer wanted and roles as full time parents, for lives where they were fit, healthy, and in new stimulating professions. Both women also have more time for their social lives and more freedom than they have ever had before.
Many older Australians have made similar changes to their lives, reinventing themselves when the children move out of home – it’s a phenomenon that positive psychology expert and founder of The Happiness Institute, Dr Timothy Sharp, calls ‘positive ageing’.
“There are enormous benefits to positive ageing and it’s important to think of the positives when you’re going through this life transition,” says Dr Sharp, author of the book Live Happier, Live Longer. “If you keep physically fit, and active, look after your diet, get enough sleep, and keep socially active you will literally live longer. But more importantly you will live better,” he says.
“What we’re seeing now is whole generations living incredibly active lives. We see people in their 60s, 70s and 80s still working, volunteering, travelling the world, running marathons and doing all sorts of amazing things unheard of in my grandfather’s day.”
Dr Sharp, also known as Dr Happy, shares how he values his mind
So what makes someone want to revamp their life in their golden years? For some, Dr Sharp points out, it’s just a continuation of what they’ve already been doing. But for others there is an epiphany moment that brings about a whole life change.
For Gale, the epiphany came as she was driving to the hospital to visit her sick husband. At that time she was working as CEO of a hospital in the public healthcare sector, a prestigious position that demanded great sacrifices in her professional and personal lives.
“As I was driving down the freeway I started to think about my life, what I’d done and all of the things that I wanted to do and still hadn’t done. I made some big decisions about how I was going to be in my work and my work life balance – I was way out of balance,” says Gale.
“All my life I’d been working and being responsible and looking after other people and all of a sudden I realised that life could go very quickly, it could be taken away from you and that if I wanted to do something I probably should do it now. Because there might not be another year or two years,” says Gale.
Gale set a goal for herself to learn how to ride a bike and found herself a swimming coach at the local swimming pool. But training was not without challenges, the hardest of which was changing deeply rooted preconceptions about her role as a wife and mother of four children.
“The hardest thing for me was letting go of all those societal expectations that had been placed on me as a younger woman, that to spend any time on yourself was actually really selfish,” says Gale.
Roth had a similar battle with feelings of self-doubt. “I remember thinking at the time ‘Are you mad? How are you going to write essays? What if you fail? And how are you going to open your own practice when your life isn’t perfect either?”’ she says.
There is a life after children for a woman, says Charmaine Roth
Both women also had to deal with adjusting to new routines after years of schedules geared towards meeting the needs of a busy family. Says Roth: “I was with my daughter and I said to her ‘I have to get home by 4pm’ because that was when the kids would come home and I’d be getting the family meal ready and she said to me, ‘Why do you have to be home by 4pm now, mum?’ And I said, ‘You are absolutely right, I don’t!”’ says Roth.
Plan for success
What both Gale and Roth did successfully, was plan for their futures and it’s this planning that Dr Sharp stresses is one of the most powerful techniques people can use to help them deal with the difficult physical, emotional and social transition that people find themselves going through when the kids leave home.
“The more we plan, the more likely we are to have positive outcomes,” says Dr Sharp. “So the people who do cope better tend to have planned ahead and they know what they need to do differently,” he says.
As part of the planning process Dr Sharp recommends finding more time to do the things you want to do. “It might be sports, it might be hobbies such as music or painting, going to the theatre or joining a book club – find something you like whether it be social activities, recreational activities work, or volunteering, because it’s people who engage in these sorts of activities that tend to cope better with a sense of loss,” says Dr Sharp.
Use your social networks
As well as planning, both Roth and Gale used their social networks, another powerful tool to help them cope with the transition to a new life. Gale relied on her husband to help teach her to ride and her family were her own private cheer squad for some of her triathlons.
Roth says she received much support and encouragement from her family while she was studying and after receiving her diploma she carried out volunteer work to “help me get over the hump of ‘Who do I think I am helping other people?’” she says.
Have realistic expectations
Dr Sharp cautions about having unrealistic expectations about changing one’s life. According to Dr Sharp, it’s important to realise that despite happier outcomes experienced by people pursuing positive ageing strategies, there are still the normal ups and downs of life and may even be an element of loss and grief. It can also take months or years to bring about changes in one’s life particularly if you are starting off learning a new skill or a new hobby.
But the good news is “if you’re doing the right thing and taking the steps and heading in the right direction, you will almost certainly experience the benefits and those benefits will increase over time,” says Dr Sharp.
Dr Sharp focuses on the promotion of happiness in individuals, families and organisations
Have you managed to reinvent yourself or found a new passion? Share your story here.
(Feature image: Facebook / Fit N Fifty Plus)