Middle age is more than just a number

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.

Middle age. When is it? When does it happen? What does it mean? It’s a rather elusive age no one admits reaching, denies when accused of being there, and protests insinuation that they have passed it.

Dante fixed “the middle year of life” at about 35. Erikson described middle adulthood as 45 to 55. But the most generous range is age 40-65 as defined by New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen in her new book about middle age, “In Our Prime.”

ABC News’ “World News Tonight” recently profiled Cohen’s book and the new research that indicates the brain power of the middle-aged mind is better than we think. In fact, our brains peak in middle age thanks to the thickening of the myelin that insulates brain cells, allowing them to fire more rapidly than when we were younger. Memory peaks about age 45, financial planning skills at 53, and vocabulary between ages 60-70.

What a relief.

As I sit on the cusp of another fifty-something birthday, it’s nice to know some peaks have not yet been reached.

I’m convinced, however, that true weight of middle age is not determined by the calendar year or even our brain power, but by our position in a period of life. It is not the number of years we have lived, but rather our placement in eras.

Middle age is that period in life when we are attending funerals of our mentors, saying farewell to our children and welcoming grandchildren. It happens at different ages depending on our circumstances.

Middle age is that time in our life when you don’t “go home to see the folks” because we are the folks! Our parents and other significant mentors of life have either died or are retired. And suddenly we discover that the legacy of leadership and heritage of tradition are in our hands.

We turn to look up for guidance, as in days past, only to find that family and the lesser-aged are looking up to us. We have met the family patriarchs-matriarchs and they are us.

Our own age and recent memories of mentors have not yet placed us in their positions. So we are in the middle, struggling with new roles and learning to balance “what was” and “was not yet.” Hair turning gray (and loose) and wrinkles reminding us of both worries and joys give us the uniform of the elder sage, the new leader. But we wonder if we are ready for that role.

Many of us have been unwillingly promoted, our parents leaving us too early with many unfinished lessons to teach. Reconfigured roles settle awkwardly on us. Life is so different and often difficult because we have lost our anchors.

Then it hits us — we are middle age. A level marked not by calendar, but position.

And we are grateful for our deep roots and un-peaked minds that prepare us for those new roles and adventures ahead.