The Story of Aging with ADHD

By Heidi Dellafera Eagleton, AA, BA, JD, MArch

It’s time to consider aging adults, who, like me, were diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in their sixties or later, or those elderly adults who have never been diagnosed. For years, professionals regarded ADHD as a “childhood disorder primarily affecting young boys.”

Although research and diagnosis of adults with ADHD have increased over the past twenty years, it has not been the case for older adults. Of people over sixty-five who live with ADHD, an estimated 2-3 percent, only 0.2-0.5 percent of these individuals have received a formal diagnosis, and therefore have had to struggle throughout their lives without a correct explanation or the tools to manage ADHD’s challenges.

I was diagnosed. I was one of the lucky ones.

I now can question as givens commonly accepted and internalized ageist stereotypes, or the evidence of cognitive decline, or the beginnings of dementia among seniors, “inattention, difficulty concentrating, poor listening skills and impulsivity.” For aging adults, like me, these are ADHD challenges that have been with us, diagnosed or undiagnosed, for almost a lifetime. They are not necessarily a part of the “normal” aging process, as is often thought. Few ask if these stereotypical behaviors are something else. I think it’s time that we do.

Looking Back

That I’m writing this now is astonishing, having lived with undiagnosed ADHD for the better part of my lifetime. In grammar school, I could have been the poster child for ADHD had it been thought of as an “affliction” for young girls as well as young boys. But it wasn’t, and it would be years later before girls, let alone a woman in her sixties, would be diagnosed. And it would be years before that woman finally would believe that she wasn’t “stupid” or “less than.”

For years before I was diagnosed with ADHD, I fought self-doubt. The seeds had been planted in 1966 by my high school guidance counselors who said that based on my entrance exam scores (SATs), that college was out of my reach and capability.

My dad, my biggest fan, would have none of it. He told me to dig deep inside myself, to avoid doubters, and, by tweaking a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt, to “reach for the stars but to keep one toe on the ground.” Everyone needs a “biggest fan” like that.

He said that if I worked hard and kept my head on straight, I could be whatever I wanted to be regardless of what others thought, even those “in the know,” or those who laughed at my ambition, which at the time was to become a trial lawyer.

By working harder than most, I shined academically except in math, my nemesis. Yet despite my good grades, I struggled with standardized tests. I never met one I liked or had success with, whether it was an SAT, LSAT (law school entrance exam), or a state law or architectural licensing exam. I knew a lot, but it wasn’t evident in my test scores no matter how hard I tried or how hard I prepared for tests.

Somehow along the way, though, I learned to refuse to take “no” for an answer. It was a skill that would serve me well. If the front door was closed, I went through the back door, side door, or basement door. And often the front door was locked as well as closed.

Proving my guidance counselors wrong, I graduated with an Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree in 1968 from my “safety school,” a junior college, which at the time was considered one step above a “finishing school.” It was a detour I had to take due to my lousy SAT scores. Later, in 1970, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree with departmental honors in government from the all-women’s, four-year college I had wanted to go to straight out of high school.

Law school was next. Not surprisingly, my LSAT scores were dismal, 326 out of a possible 800. Suspecting that my scores might be a problem, I visited the law school I wanted to attend to ask that they be waived and that I be accepted based on my academic record. Before the admissions committee, I argued that I was a great student, just a lousy standardized test taker with a history of standardized test failures to prove it. I won my first case.

Three years later in 1973, I graduated with a law degree (J.D.), one of about seventy-five women out of a class of around 750 students, and by mid-1974, I was on my way to fulfilling my high school dream of a career in trial law. That same year I passed the bar exam after being tutored on the “art of taking standardized exams,” which I learned had more to do with methodology than with actual knowledge.

I had reached for the stars with barely one toe on the ground, and at the same time had conquered at least one pesky “multiple-choice” exam. To hedge my bets, I took two different state bar exams over the course of three days. Amtrak helped with that. I passed both, thanks to my tutor and a little ceramic elephant he had given me to put on my exam table for good luck.

Nonetheless, I found it difficult to manage the everyday job of living in the moment. My drug of choice was work; chocolate was a close second. I was a workaholic who looked forward to spending Friday nights alone reading legal cases while devouring half of a chocolate cake to numb my pain and ease my anxiety.

I made little time to do much outside of the law or eat on a regular basis. I weighed 107 pounds soaking wet at five feet four inches tall, fifteen pounds less than I weighed when I started law school. I smoked like a chimney. Coffee, and plenty of it, helped me focus. Ritalin wasn’t on my radar then. I pushed on. I had to be the best trial lawyer I could be.

My anxiety about being “stupid” drove me to work harder and longer than was necessary and sleep less than what I needed. I became a classic overachiever. I juggled multiple balls in the air with abandon. Few could keep up with me, my energy, or my hyper-focusing. Few wanted to. Many of my relationships suffered. Moderation wasn’t a part of my vocabulary.

But then the unexpected happened. It always does. Life got in the way. After I married in 1976 and shortly after my dad’s death in 1977, I became pregnant. That wasn’t part of the plan so early in my legal career. It wasn’t even on the map in high school when I chose my future career path. Nor was the loss of my dad, my “anchor” and my “sounding board.” I quit smoking the day I found out I was expecting.

I liked the law. I had worked hard, and I was on partnership track at my law firm. But the firm’s billable hour expectations with a new baby seemed beyond my reach at the time. My lack of confidence led me to believe that I needed a course change so I reluctantly left the law in 1978. I couldn’t cut it, I thought. But I wanted a career, and if it wasn’t law, it had to be something else. I still had to prove myself to me and to all those who had doubted me.

That something else would be architecture, an interest I had developed while I was renovating our 1850s farmhouse, which my husband and I had bought shortly after we married. Naively, I expected architecture to be more compatible with family life than trial law.

I was wrong. Architecture was just a different kind of pressure, with more years of schooling and a husband and now two children. I struggled to keep up. After a few fits and starts, I finally received my Master of Architecture in 1986.

Like law, architecture required enormous commitment. I spent many “all-nighters” in the design studio, after putting my children in bed, cranking out designs and building models. I had never pulled a law school “all-nighter.”

I was known by fellow architecture students, all much younger than me, for my habits as well as my design skills. I was that “older student” who drank “Tab,” a diet cola filled with caffeine and discontinued in 2020, and who ate sugar-coated “Frosted Flakes” by the handful during design reviews depending on its “sugar high” to keep me from “nodding off” during critiques. Little did I know at the time that both were effective ways to help me stay focused.

I also was known as that “older student” with the two kids in tow. It was clear from the outset that my children and I were a package deal, an anomaly for college students in the mid-1980s. My youngest son came to the studio with me. I set up his playpen under my drafting table, one of two mothers who did. My older son wasn’t far off. I could see and hear him on the playground at a small private school across the street from the architecture building. Lots of faculty sent their kids there, but I was the only student who took advantage of that opportunity, and I was probably only one of the few students who needed to do so.

Sometimes, in my more “sober” less frantic moments, I questioned what I was doing. In my heart I had accepted that I was different, and more importantly that I thought differently. My life to date had left no doubt about that. But what I had accepted in my heart didn’t matter. I had to appear to “fit in” and appear on the outside, the side everyone would see, to be an architect’s architect.

I spent the better part of ten years trying to pass all six sections of the Missouri architectural licensing exam to be able to call myself an “architect,” hang up my shingle, and start my own practice. Eventually, after finishing my three-year internship, a requirement to sit for the exam, and after having to start the exam all over because of a move to a different state, I would pass its six sections. But I hadn’t passed them in the right sequence all at the same time, another but more curious requirement, for credit and a license. My self-esteem took a big hit.

The scars had grown deeper. My “stupid” and “less than” meter was off the charts. The architectural licensing exam was to be one of the last standardized tests I would ever take. I felt like a total failure.

After many therapy sessions in my sixties, many tears, and an ADHD diagnosis, I became convinced that the time I had spent chasing the architectural licensing exam was time not well spent. I understood that the chase had been driven entirely by my relentless anxiety, like so much of my life before had been driven, over being thought “stupid ” and “less than” and my unstoppable need to prove it wasn’t so. I had to “fit” in.

I’m grateful that I didn’t have to pay the ultimate price, estrangement from that which brings me my greatest joy, my family. During the years I was on the chase, I almost lost the very thing I wanted most, a healthy balance between my career and my family life. By the time I finally understood this, my two sons had graduated college and had become awesome young men.

During those same years, though, my career suffered little; it flourished. In 1989, I started my own architectural firm, partnering with one of my architecture school professors, a licensed architect. In 2004, I folded our architectural firm into a combined practice; development, architecture, construction, and real estate sales, and for over fifteen years, I was its owner and president. I also was an Adjunct Professor of Architecture at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), and a guest lecturer at several colleges and universities with SAT standards so high that, ironically, I wouldn’t have had a prayer of being accepted to a first-year class there when I graduated from high school. Not bad for a “girl” who wasn’t college material.

Looking Forward

A much-needed wake-up call, a fall Christmas Eve morning in 2022, resulting in a severed right rotator cuff and a busted-up bicep, made me realize that my life aging with ADHD needed tweaking. While I was stewing about how I would get everything done, I slipped on an ice patch behind the garage apartment my husband and I were renting while visiting our family for Christmas.

With the bucket of Christmas greens, I was carrying still intact in my left arm, I hit the ground, saving most of its water from spilling out. But my right arm hadn’t fared as well. It was splayed out in front of me in the alleyway like a filleted fish ready for the frying pan.

I’d lost my focus that Christmas Eve day. I wasn’t watching where I was going, thinking about a million things, including our “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” Christmas Eve dinner, a family tradition, later that evening.

That I had been inattentive in the past and gotten away with it unscathed didn’t matter. This time, to make matters worse, it happened on a special occasion, Christmas Eve day, the day my family would celebrate the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” as all good Italian families do. What horrible timing.

Lying in the middle of the alley with my right shoulder throbbing in pain that morning, I knew then that I had to be more mindful, discerning, attentive, and less impulsive. I knew I had to slow down and focus on one task at a time. I knew I had to learn that I still could do multiple things, just not all at once. And even after my ADHD diagnosis and years of counseling, I knew that morning that I had more about my ADHD to understand and, most importantly, to accept.

Going forward, my job is to age successfully with ADHD by using the tools I acquired after my diagnosis and by embracing ADHD’s positives: “creativity, tenacity, boundless energy, curiosity, and the ability to hyperfocus and to think outside of the box,” and to negotiate its challenges: “inattention, difficulty concentrating, poor listening skills, and impulsivity.” Not an easy task, but a necessary one.

In retrospect, I believe that I navigated my life’s journey and the bumps along the way because I unwittingly used my differences and my ability to “think outside of the box” to carry on successfully despite my high school guidance counselors’ dire predictions. Going to a junior college, my law school admissions visit, hiring a tutor to teach me the “art of taking standardized tests,” hedging my bets by taking two state law exams at once, bringing my kids to architecture school with me, and partnering with a licensed architect and one of my architecture school professors to start an architectural practice are all evidence of that.

However, at the same time, I also believe in retrospect that my ADHD challenges: “impulsivity, perfectionism, my tendency to make careless mistakes, and my inability to moderate,” went into overdrive unchecked and left me feeling “stupid” and “less than.” I had stayed in the “I have to prove that I’m not stupid” game way too long.

Today, I look at my ADHD not as a “disorder” or “deficit,” or negatively, but as a “difference,” an attention and/or hyperactivity difference with positives to be harnessed, and challenges to be addressed. From the front seat, I think it’s time to focus on what’s working and draw from it.

My ADHD and I will always be a work in progress. I’m not a journalist or a mental-health professional. I can only tell you of my personal experiences living with and aging with ADHD, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. But I can say that passion, a sense of humor, and the courage to change course in the face of fear and do it anyway help. Flexibility doesn’t hurt either. I still do a million things, just not all at once. I am who I am.

My husband and I recently sold our home, downsized, and moved across the country with our dog, Maddie, to settle into a 1,200 square foot floating home on Lake Union in Seattle, Washington. I changed careers, closed my development, architecture, and construction company to write children’s chapter books, a long-time passion, to keep me focused. Every evening, I try to sit quietly on our roof deck to watch the sun set over the Lake Union and with the Olympic Mountains in the background practice mindfulness. For all of this, I am grateful.

To harness my boundless energy, I Zumba three times weekly. It’s an aerobic fitness program, which I started in my sixties, “featuring movements inspired by Latin dance and performed mostly to Latin music.”

I no longer run. I take long walks with Maddie daily and kayak as often as I can. I now hike with poles, and I’ll probably give up skiing and give snowshoeing a try due to my shoulder injury.

And above all, as a senior about to turn seventy-five, I have chosen to embrace even more tightly the differences that made me, me, to find joy, and to live life to its fullest while aging with ADHD.

Awareness, research, knowledge, and diagnosis are powerful weapons that can advance positive ADHD outcomes. Without these weapons, the tools needed to meet its challenges and to harness its positives are difficult to come by. Anecdotally, I’m proof of that.

So, for those of us out there aging with ADHD trying to flourish in a society that tends to favor “youth over experience,” remember us. We must be included in the dialogue and not be forgotten by the ADHD community. We need many more “lucky ones.”

/Heidi

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