The children have flown the nest, menopause has struck and old age lies ahead. As a study says it’s the year many lose their get-up-and-go, a panel of female writers tackles the thorny question… Do you feel needy or breezy when you’re 54

  • Psychologists claimed that 54 is the age people start losing their ‘get-up-and-go’ 
  • Sarah Vine, who turns 54 in a few months, claims she is just getting started
  • She spoke to a number of women in their mid-fifties to see if they felt the same

So, according to psychologists, the age at which we officially lose our ‘get-up-and-go’ is 54. Gone is our grit, washed away is our willpower, sated is our desire to scale new and better heights of human experience.

Yet, to me, the choice of the number 54 — based on a study of 917 people by a Norwegian psychologist — seems about as arbitrary as the notion of 42 being the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

I shall reach this fateful age in just a few months, assuming nothing too untoward happens before then. At which point it may well be that I wake that morning listless, my aged fingers barely able to lift my morning mug of tea to my wizened mouth.

But I suspect not. I have never felt more motivated, or more enthusiastic about the future. Even when young and child‑free, I’d happily spend days buried beneath my duvet, or drifting around aimlessly. 

A study conducted by psychologists found that 54 is the age at which people start to lose their ‘get-up-and-go’ drive (stock image)

These days I’m up with the scaffolders, going about my business with the kind of chirpy enthusiasm that my sybaritic twentysomething self would have despised. I suspect more than a little of this may be chemically induced, thanks to three letters: HRT. All of the advantages of hormones, none of the downsides.

It could also be that my offspring are no longer helpless cubs requiring my attention every waking moment, but quasi-adults more than capable of rustling up an omelette and dressing themselves (although in the case of my teenage daughter and the outfit she tried to leave the house in the other day, that is questionable). Either way, they are not the delightful little energy vampires they used to be.

I realise, of course, that mine is not an experience common to all. Many people, especially women, find that their 50s are a time when many of the certainties that have sustained them slowly but surely start to fall away. Some, like me, relish the extra time on their hands; others find the absence of young dependents leaves them feeling a little lost.

Many find themselves waving goodbye to their children just as their own parents start to need looking after, with all the emotional and financial upheaval that comes with it.

Others still find that the domestic glue that once bound their lives together starts to dissolve. This is the age when, if cracks do exist in a marriage, they begin to show.

Add to all that — for women — the menopause, with its array of debilitating symptoms, and you can understand how a blanket of despondency might envelop one.

Although her 54th birthday is only a few months away, Sarah Vine (pictured) says she has never felt more motivated

But the truth is that this time of life is often a crossroads. A time when we have to decide between sliding inexorably into decrepitude, or digging deep and finding those extra reserves to keep going.

This was something I never understood until a few years ago, when I hit 50. I realised I had a choice: either drift slowly into oblivion or shake things up.

So I lost weight and started taking care of myself. I made fundamental positive changes to my life. And as my health — both physical and mental — began to improve, so did my outlook. I found reserves of energy I never knew I had.

And I also woke up to the hard truth that the clock is ticking. The bottom half of the hourglass is fuller than the top. My life is running out, and if there are things I still want to do, I’d better get a move on.

Hence my newfound sense of urgency. Now I have goals — short, medium and long-term. I am intellectually and physically hyperactive, curious to try new experiences and revisit old ones. I recently started cycling seriously again, for example.

I find my friends are the same. One has just launched an online book club; another has begun riding competitively; another is embarking on a huge renovation project.

And it’s not just my generation. When my mother was the same age as me, she embarked — finally — on her university degree.

Far from losing our get-up-and-go in our mid-50s, so many women my age feel they are only just getting started.

MENOPAUSE LEFT ME PURPOSELESS

Susannah Constantine, 58

Susannah Constantine (pictured) says that the menopause left her lacking self-confidence

At 54 I ticked off a lifelong ambition when my first novel was published. You would think I was riding high, full of passion and confidence for life ahead. But I understand why a lot of women approaching the middle of their sixth decade might find motivation waning, because, despite outward appearances, I had lost my confidence and self-esteem.

I can only put it down to the menopause, which, for me started at about 51 and was peaking three years later.

Rather than a physical struggle, I found myself engaging in a mental battle, withdrawing into myself, questioning my own value and purpose. Those feelings were encapsulated in my reaction to a magazine shoot related to the publication of my novel. I looked at the pictures and thought: ‘Who is this woman?’ I saw someone frumpy and middle-aged, who had let herself go.

But when faced with those feelings you can choose to give in or you can choose to fight; I chose to fight.

Now I look in the mirror and see someone who has had a full life, who hasn’t let a number define her. I’m grateful that photoshoot gave me a kick up the a***!

At 55, I took on Sport Relief’s Famously Unfit challenge, completing a gruelling Tough Guy endurance event. Having puffed my way through 5K distances at 54, now at 58 I’ll pop out and run 16K. Yesterday I plunged into the brisk waters of the English Channel for a swim with some female friends, all of a similar age.

I didn’t lose my motivation at 54, I found it!

THE CRUNCH STARTS WELL BEFORE 54!

Anne Diamond, 66

Anne Diamond (pictured) said that she started to feel less energised at the age of 40 when she was expecting her fourth child

Who came up with the idea of 54 being the great crunch? In my experience it happens on your 40th, when your friends treat you to a nice vase, and at your 50th (when all my presents were joke ones, such as copies of Fifty Shades Of Grey). It happens again at your 60th celebration do, when I asked no one to mention my age, only for a dessert to arrive with 60 piped on it in cream.

You have to steel yourself for a boot camp at every birthday, asking yourself: ‘Who do I want to be? A couch potato, or Helen Mirren?’ Then you have to muster every ounce of get-up-and-go to make it happen.

At 40, I was just about to have baby number four, busily presenting a morning programme on the BBC. I felt powerful. Yet I was also a little jaded.

Though happier by 50, at 54 I was still wondering who I was and trying to play up to the media perception of who I should be: still young, slim and girlish.

That was the year I went to Belgium for a gastric band operation — which was an absolute disaster for me — and tried once and for all to end my war with weight problems.

It wasn’t my best year, because I hadn’t yet realised you have to create your own ‘best year’, time and again.

The study claims that ‘as soon as you end up in your 50s, a shift happens.’

But we don’t just ‘end up’ in our 50s. We should take them on — and every year after.

If you try, you can find your motivation again and again, at 64, 74 and, according to my late mum, 84 and 94, too.

IT WAS MY MOST MOMENTOUS YEAR

Tessa Cunningham, 62

Tessa Cunningham (pictured) said that when she turned 54 she found a new devil-may-care attitude that led her to try riding on a speedboat in a wetsuit

Squeezing into a wetsuit on the floor of my new boyfriend’s speedboat as we hurtled across the Solent at bone-juddering speed, I wondered whether I had gone completely mad.

I’d spent the last 40 years refusing to do more than paddle. I’d almost drowned as a girl and it had left me terrified.

Yet there I was about to hurl myself into the decidedly choppy sea off the Isle of Wight and try to water-ski. All I can put it down to is turning 54 and the new-found devil-may-care attitude which came with it.

Within months of my birthday I had acquired a new boyfriend — we’re still together eight years later — a new hobby (I’m now a keen but decidedly unstylish water-skier) and an entirely new outlook on life.

At 50 I was miserably harking back to my 40s, resenting the horrible suspicion I was middle-aged. To add to my woes, my marriage had just ended. No wonder I felt worthless and hopeless.

Four years later it was like the sun came out. Having 60 on the dim horizon was like a turbo-charger. Suddenly I realised there wasn’t a second to lose.

At the same time my younger daughter left home for university. I had an empty nest — another reason to get out and do new things, which is how I came to meet Richard on an online dating site.

Like me, he was 54 and divorced with two daughters. We had enough in common to bond us and enough different interests to make life exciting.

Milestones like getting married and having a baby have been hugely significant. But my 54th year turned out to be the most momentous of my life.

I HAVE TO FIGHT MY ‘CAN’T DO’ ATTITUDE

Claudia Connell, 54

Claudia Connell (pictured) said that her first reaction to a task that is either new or unfamiliar is ‘No, I can’t’

Remember President Obama’s slogan ‘Yes we can’? Well mine is the exact opposite. ‘No I can’t’ is the first thought that springs to mind whenever I’m called upon to tackle anything new or unfamiliar.

The confidence and cockiness I had in spades in my 20s and 30s has all but vanished. The young woman who knew that life could throw anything at her and she’d tackle it head-on has left the building. An incident last weekend is a fine example. Exasperated with an unreliable broadband connection, I invested in a mesh wifi system, guaranteed to give me coverage throughout the house.

Yet despite my urgent need, and paying £200 for it, it sat in the box for a fortnight. I told myself anything technical was beyond my ability and I’d never be able to set it up in a million years, so why bother trying?

I even phoned an IT expert and asked him to do it (for £85), but he was unavailable. Finally, I gave myself a good talking to, got it out of the box . . . and got it up and running in five minutes flat.

The fear of failure and the ‘what’s the point?’ lethargy that has crept into my life in the last couple of years is something I’m on a mission to stamp out.

The block is psychological only and goes hand-in-hand with the feeling of invisibility so many middle-aged women experience. If nobody notices me, then what do I have left to offer?

But hold on. Didn’t I drive across America just four years ago? Didn’t I leave London to start a new life in Sussex two years ago? A lack of passion and belief is a crushingly damaging mindset to allow to fester.

Asking myself, ‘how would 30‑year-old Claudia tackle this?’ has been a great antidote.

I JUST NEED A STRONG COFFEE TO GET GOING

Louise Atkinson, 56

Louise Atkinson (pictured) doesn’t let her age stop her getting out and about as she takes yoga classes twice a week and only needs strong coffee to get going

It’s clear 54 was a full-on year for me. I became obsessed with mastering the handstand, taking twice-weekly yoga classes and booking myself into two hardcore yoga retreats overseas.

That was also the year I published my first book, The Shrinkology Solution, and took the family on a ‘once in a lifetime’ adventure holiday to Bali, which combined white-water rafting and trekking up a 12,000ft volcano. In 2018 I became an eco-warrior, imposing a plastic-free edict on my poor family, becoming obsessive about recycling and picking up litter, searching out eco-alternatives and jumping through complex hoops (despite much dissension from my husband) so we could switch to an environmentally-friendly electric car.

I worked hard to up my tennis game and joined a second orchestra in a bid to improve my rusty French Horn playing.

Yes, I can understand that some people might find the mid-50s a bit ‘meh’. You are solidly in midlife and properly menopausal, your wrinkles are deepening and the jowls can no longer be disguised.

With the kids leaving home and increasingly independent — mine were 21, 18 and 16 — it would be so easy to feel stagnant and stale.

But two years on from that crazy 54th year, I’ve still got just as much ‘get-up-and-go’ as ever. I just might need a strong coffee to get me started.

My ongoing midlife drive could be partly thanks to HRT, it could be personality, or it could be because my mother died when she was 52; I feel every extra year I get that she didn’t simply has to be packed to the gunnels.

I love to learn new things and push my boundaries and I’ve found the resulting thrill and sense of satisfaction seems to shine brighter when set against all the indignities of encroaching old age. In fact, I probably have more passion than I did in my 20s.

Though everything takes more effort these days, with 60 hurtling towards me I have absolutely no intention of slowing down.

YES I LOST MY MOJO BUT I GOT IT BACK

Mandy Appleyard, 60

Mandy Appleyard said that her 54th birthday was an unhappy time for her because her father died and she had gained some weight

The year I turned 54 was not a happy one. My lovely father died, my once enviable waistline became just the midpoint on a barrel of extra body fat and I lost a major writing contract.

The result? A definite feeling of torpor, sapping energy and fuzzy-headedness. I’m sure the menopause played its part in this unpleasant sense that I was no longer at the top of my game — or even in the game.

As I approached my mid-50s, I remember the sobering realisation that there was more life behind me than in front. So no wonder we’re left feeling that our get-up-and-go is gone. 

But for all the wading through treacle I did at 54, I somehow found an easier place to be: not quite a sunny upland, but definitely a peaceful, comfortable spot where life feels good. 

As time has passed, my mojo has come back. Not through any great effort on my part, simply by natural evolution. When I was 56 I got my first dog — cheeky cockapoo Freddie. 

The following year I walked 192 miles across England on the Coast to Coast hike. At 58 I travelled solo to Jordan, India, Qatar and Botswana. Now 60, I’ve just signed up to do an A-level in politics. 

Yes, there’s life in me yet, whatever the scientists might say.

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