The Fullness of Life After 50

Friendships, love and living in midlife and beyond

By Lisa Schuetz

So you’ve finally scaled your middle years and can see your future beyond the first half. There’s no reason to be a spectator. Dive in. As spiritualist Marianne Williamson says, “Midlife is not the time to disenchant ourselves. It’s a time to turn on all our magic in full force.” The people around you—and the chemistry you create with them—can whip up both a depth of richness and a spice to midlife.  Women—especially those living in and near Dane County—can certainly fill their market basket with new people, including lovers and partners, at age 55 and beyond. Some even say, it’s the best time.

Making Friends

Liz Zélandais was adrift when she moved to Madison 16 years ago at 49. The former Texan had just ended a relationship and during a visit fell in love with Madison’s cool vibe. Fortunately, the only person she knew had a busy social life, and Zélandais, who describes herself as having been “raised with zero social skills,” tagged along for a weekend. It kicked off a new phase for the former project manager and technical writer.

“We started on a Friday afternoon at (UW-Madison’s) Memorial Union Terrace. Within two hours, I had met about 50 people,” says Zélandais, now 65. “Then we went to a Hash House Harriers event, and I met another 50 people. By the end of the second day, we were at a festival, and I was introducing people to each other.”

Zélandais, who started a new career as a healer at age 60 and owns Applied Life Technics, likes to uncover a person’s unique superpower when she meets them.

“Everyone has a Ph.D. in something,” she says. “My goal is to find out what that is. It’s like a scavenger hunt sometimes.”

Freya Reeves, 73, also moved to Wisconsin on her own. She arrived in Mineral Point in 1995 to work at Lands’ End, eventually relocating to Madison.

“Moving to Mineral Point, population 2,448, from downtown Chicago was kind of a culture shock.” says Reeves, who at the time was a divorcee with two grown sons. “I had to learn to drive a car.”

Reeves, who is recently widowed, says she’s not worried about staying social, even though she requires a certain amount of solitude. She gets out with friends, neighbors and even on her own.

“I’m not one of those people who goes out there looking to meet people,” says Reeves. “That’s not who I am. So how I meet people is to go out there and do the things that I love to do.”

Reeves says she prefers to speak to the same person all evening in an effort to make a deep connection.

Unlike Zélandais and Reeves, Sandra (Sandi) Daniel, 59, grew up in Madison. She’s been single for about 11 years and loves it.

“I’m the absolute opposite of a homebody,” she says.

Once a lover of downtown nightlife, in recent years, she’s found a better way to visit her favorite haunts: happy hour.

“There are a ton of restaurants with bars that have great happy hours, and I find that as I get older, I don’t want to stay out until midnight,” says Daniel, listing downtown favorites such as Eno Vino, Rare Steakhouse, Heritage Tavern and the Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar.

She often goes with friends, but she’s not afraid to head out solo. Happy hours are rife with people her age and older. She always seems to run into someone she knows. The other benefit is that she doesn’t have to cook, and the price is right.

Daniel, who owns Fire Light Group, also finds she meets new people all the time at networking events—you can find them on meetup.com or eventbrite.com—as well as during play. She also bikes all over the city and even met a man she’s dated on the trail. Her primary strategy is striking up a conversation with people about something they may have in common, based on the situation at hand.

Denise Kwiatkowski, 56, of Lodi, is a regulatory affairs manager for a pharmaceutical company and a photographer. Currently single, she says friendships are something you can count on, particularly her tight-knit circle of friends of various ages and marital status whom she refers to as her personal community or chosen family.

“Nobody is going to escape life’s curveballs,” she says. “We have to rely on our friends to get each other through it.”

As a photographer, her outings tend to be related to nature, such as kayaking (she’s a member of Mad City Paddlers) or events and classes at UW’s Arboretum or Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Kwiatkowski also prefers going on a trip each year alone to a place that fills her spirit, such as the mountains of Colorado. “I love the serendipity of travel,” she says.

So What About Love?

Conventional wisdom used to say that your marital life settled down once you reached midlife. That’s no longer true, says Lauren Papp, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and specializes in intimate relationships at UW-Madison.

“Midlife crisis to me has a pretty negative connotation,” says Papp. “I see midlife as a distinct period of change and something we need to recognize as a focus on our own personal wellbeing.”

Since it is a time of change, she says, data shows that at midlife and beyond people are at a greater risk of divorce. That also likely means there’s more re-partnering at this time of life.

This was certainly true for Zélandais, who has been married to Scott Zimmer for 10 years.

“I had to do some personal shape shifting and improving my sense of self before I could find the right man,” she says. “I stopped dating for a few months and I did a lot of reading.”

Once ready, she turned to online dating, looking deliberately, not desperately, for someone who added more pleasure than pain to her already abundant life. At 53, she met Zimmer and they married two years later.

Daniel prefers to date casually since she travels for work and has a very active social life.

“I don’t have a lot of time, so it’s going to have to be someone who’s ok with that,” she says.

She prefers to meet men organically as they happen to come into her life doing the things she loves.

Kwiatkowski sees this period as a time for being alone and treasures her ability to grab her camera and run off to take photos without having to coordinate with anyone’s schedule. She also knows it’s likely temporary.

“There’s a Buddhist principle of impermanence, that you have to learn to live with impermanence,” she says. “Everything is shifting. I know that I won’t be alone forever. I know that I’ll drop into a relationship with a good man again and things will shift again. I’m ok with that mystery.”

Papp says that, according to a new book out in May called “The Happiness Curve” by Jonathan Rauch, life gets better after midlife. “If we can recognize that life changes, particularly in our 40s, which feels like a slump to many people, the curve picks up and you can be on this really positive trajectory again after 50,” she says.

That fullness of life after 50 is why all women interviewed prefer not to identify themselves by their marital status or as grandparents.

“We’re like a disco ball. We have all of these different facets,” says Zélandais. “Being a grandmother or a wife is just a different facet on the disco ball. More than anything, at this age, I have a comfort level with being myself. I’m at an age when I realize that I’m not going to fit into every category, and I’m ok with that.”