picture of Barbara Waxman smiling
Barbara Waxman

Marin gerontologist says years 45 to 65 are ‘top of the hill’

As a child, Barbara Waxman accompanied her father on his volunteer visits to the Menorah Home and Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, where she happily spent time talking with older people.

Some kids might be shy or scared in such a situation, but Waxman wasn’t, and her interest in aging has never waned.

Waxman, 54, is a gerontologist (someone who studies aging) and a coach who works with executives and individuals seeking to live closer to their values. Because Americans’ life expectancy increased dramatically last century, Waxman says we have more time to shift focus and add more meaning to our lives as we age.

“The roughly 35 years we’ve added to our lives are not a period of decrepitude, but years of tremendous power and potential to act on behalf of ourselves, our families, our businesses, our communities and the world,” Waxman says from her office in Kentfield. She is a member of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Waxman has coined a term — middlescence — for this relatively new stage of life. It’s pronounced along the lines of “adolescence.”

Whatever we give up in physical prowess, we get back in the wisdom department.

“I believe that naming the stage is important, and my mission is to have middlescence become as popular and culturally accepted a term as adolescence,” she says.

“The years between 45 and 65 are not over the hill. They are the top of the hill,” she writes in her “Middlescence Manifesto,” which can be downloaded from her website, BarbaraWaxman.com. The site also includes a list of her speaking engagements and an area called “The Middlescence Factor,” where one can sign up to receive an e-newsletter on the topic.

“Today, being ‘older’ means not so much the age we’re at, but the stage,” she says. “That means that 65 is not a cut-off. There are soft edges to middlescence, just as there are people who experience early adolescence and people who are late bloomers. One man in his 70s told me recently that he absolutely still qualifies as someone in middlescence.”

Waxman is well aware that many people rail against aging, seeing it as something depressing, some kind of personal failure. Why is that? “We have a problem with becoming grown-ups, and we need to get over that,” Waxman says. “We know that growing up does not last forever, and that’s a scary thought. But we must remember that if life went on forever, it wouldn’t be as meaningful.”

Waxman still vividly recalls those visits to the Menorah Home and Hospital with her father, who escaped from Nazi Germany. “I was maybe 7 when I started going with him,” she says. “The people there would pinch my cheeks and tell me I was adorable. Some would show me the numbers on their arms, and tell me their stories. I kept going back, so I must not have been born with the DNA to fear old people and denigrate aging.”

In the early 1980s, Waxman earned a master’s degree in the relatively new field of gerontology. She took up coaching about a decade ago.

“People started asking me for coaching, people running companies and nonprofit organizations,” she says. “My three kids were in middle school and younger then, and the New Yorker in me thought the field sounded soft, so I went on my merry way. But more people called, because at the time, there were no gerontologists in the field.”

The rapid expansion of years in our lives has been accompanied with expansions in technology and what Waxman calls “The Busyness of Life.”

“That’s often why we don’t pay enough attention to the wisdom associated with these extra years we have,” she says. “We don’t take time to go deeper.”

She notes that one of the more shallow concerns today is physical beauty. The flip side of that, she notes, is that in George Washington’s time, men wore white wigs to appear older.

“Because the gray hairs were the people who were respected, young people wore white wigs,” she says. “Today, I think our concern with the physical beauty of youth is starting to change. For instance, the new Athleta catalogue features a photo of a beautiful, fabulously wrinkled older woman doing yoga in the sun.”

Accepting aging as we grow older allows us to accept our mortality, Waxman says, and then we can look more clearly at who we are and live in a way that reflects what we value.

“So many of my clients say they are too busy to do that, that they are not present in life in the way they want to be. They always ask me if it’s too late,” she says. “It’s not too late.”

Today Waxman is more convinced than ever that as we age, life gets better, richer and more complicated. But what about the physical restrictions many older adults face?

Waxman, who recently had hip replacement surgery, laughs.

“Get over it,” she says. “Whatever we give up in physical prowess, we get back in the wisdom department. It’s important to use that, and not focus on being bummed out.

“Don’t sit still. Ask yourself what’s on the table that you still do have.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.