Opinion: how we think about time can influence behaviour and decisions about work, health, relationships and especially our quality of life as we get older

With the changing of our clocks comes the inescapable perception of having more or less time available. Losing or gaining time is just one example of how older rural women perceive the concept of time. Hamlet may have believed that there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so, but our thinking around time can influence our behaviour and decisions about work, health, relationships, and ultimately the quality of life enjoyed in older age.

Time and temporality may be perceived as a form of power that informs us about age codes, laying down norms about what is considered a normal consequence and timing for life events such as building a career, marrying, starting a family, retiring and even dying. This means that experiences of any of these phenomena outside of the temporal norm, such as an unwanted retirement, divorce, or premature death, are likely to negatively influence quality of life.

At mid-life, the concept of time with its finitude and its limitations may find people anxious to accomplish outstanding goals, something that appears to be gender sensitive. Some studies suggest that women are disadvantaged by a history of time poverty that may set a pattern for life. Working women for example may experience multiple and severe time constraints, which may impact on their leisure and social participation and make it difficult for them to stay connected with important relationships or community activities.

"Mid-life for women has long been considered a time of review: a time to look backwards and forwards and re-evaluate the present". Photo: iStock

Physical and mental health may also be impacted if multi-tasking mid-lifers cannot find the time to prepare healthy meals, attend exercise classes or even play with their own children. Time pressures, along with the very act of rushing and subsequent fatigue, are known to induce stress. Some but not all mid-life women are able to deal with time poverty by employing adaptation strategies in which they continuously prioritise in order to meet commitments – perhaps a case of robbing "father time" to appease "mother earth".

One school of thought asserts that mid-life for women is a time characterised by an emerging perception of oneself as having a temporary existence, and of being dependent upon one’s body. Women become more conscious of what can be achieved within the finitude of time left, and more questioning on whether time is being spent optimally during the remainder of their lifecourse. Thus, we may witness an accelerated drive towards an expansion of the self before our ageing bodies let us down by refusing to comply with our renewed desire to take on the world.

Mid-life for women has long been considered a time of review: a time to look backwards and forwards and re-evaluate the present. Quantum physicists assert that time is not linear and does not move along a continuum of past, present and future. Instead, it moves in mercurial waves that are capable of influencing past and future inter-changeably. In layperson’s terms, it appears that, as in the movies, we can not only reach our future through our past, but also our past through our future.

It is generally held that many women in their forties, fifties and sixties undertake considerable naval-gazing

By viewing time and ageing from a lifecourse perspective, we can at least recognise that time is contextual and includes a "plasticity" that allows us to re-shape our environments. For example, we can try to improve our physical fitness regime, our eating habit, or our attitude towards money or relationships in order to influence the quality of our lives.

This argument is supported by a range of research suggesting that mid-life women from their forties onwards begin to think differently about their own lives. They consider new themes, such as achieving balance, changing direction and re-defining the self and significant relationships. Such women speak of letting go of material things in favour of spirituality and exploring the inner being, discovering that the world really is their oyster and ofpaying increased attention to our nearest and dearest. Whilst the demographics of the mid-life period are considered fluid, it is generally held that many women in their forties, fifties and sixties undertake considerable naval-gazing, casting a very cold eye over earlier life stages and adding up the debits and credits of the here and now in order to shape future time remaining.

A recent study of mid-life rural women in Ireland helps to exemplify such women’s malleable approach to time. Participants speak of a desire to forge ahead and avoid time-wasting at all costs and needing another three or four lives to do all desired things. Even for those study participants who did not yet know what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives, they recognised the finitude of time and the need for an increased focus.

"We need to consider those for whom time is standing still and for whom time is a constant reminder of the emptiness of their days". Photo: iStock

Such hunger for surging forward may be partly explained by a perception of time acceleration, in which hours, days, weeks, months and years seem to fly by, putting some mid-life rural women under pressure to peddle faster in the hope that increased velocity will stop the wheels coming off the wagon. Juggling the needs of work, children, adult children, parents and partners takes its toll, and it is usually the mid-life woman herself who pays the toll in depleted energy and increased stress levels.

But lest we think that a shortage of time is the older woman’s nemesis, we need to consider those for whom time is standing still and for whom time is a constant reminder of the emptiness of their days. These are not mythical creatures, but ordinary women whose temporality changed at some point along their lifecourse and has left them perhaps jobless, friendless, childless and husbandless. Their vision of the future is a time without end.

For rural women at mid-life, time is subjective – an ally to some, a challenge to others. Some chase its coat-tails elusively, others hide from its icy grip. What is certain is that time takes no heed of us; it is us who must mould our lives around its presence.

"So come the storms of winter and then the birds of spring again/I do not fear the time"

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ