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QUESTION: When my co-workers surprised me recently on my 50th birthday, I cried during the party. Although my colleagues interpreted my tears as a sign of joy, to me they were a symbol of a frightening realization: I'm growing older. I know I have many good years left, but I can't shake the feeling that I'm racing against the clock. Is this common among people in their 50s?

ANSWER: Perhaps more so than people age 50-something care to admit."The 50s is a fulcrum decade, a turning point in the aging process during which people, more sharply than before, are made to feel their age," sociologist David A. Karp writes in a recent issue of the Gerontologist.

A 50th birthday, particularly one marked by a special celebration, can spark new awareness of the years gone by. So can a body that tires more easily, the death of a friend or the birth of a first grandchild. "Events pile up in the 50s, making reflection about age particularly likely in this decade," Karp writes.

The Boston College professor's findings are based on in-depth interviews with 72 professional men and women age 50 to 60. Few of the study participants described themselves as old. ("I want to continue to call it middle age until I'm physically impaired," one person said, echoing a common sentiment.) However, many did experience the finiteness of time. As gerontologist Bernice Neugarten once noted of middle-aged adults, they had begun to view life in terms of the "time-left-to-live rather than the time since birth."

Frequently, the heightened sense of mortality in the 50s is mitigated by a feeling of new freedom. The participants in Karp's study reported feeling less worried about things, more laid back, liberated from major family responsibilities and wiser as a result of their experience.

QUESTION: I am a 79-year-old woman who has always been active. Recently, I enrolled in an exercise class for older people and am now experiencing chronic soreness and stiffness in both legs. My doctor diagnosed this as osteoarthritis, possibly triggered by the exercise. Must I now lead a sedentary life, or may I continue to exercise?

ANSWER: Exercise is an important part of any plan to manage osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease. This chronic disease, of unknown cause, involves the gradual breakdown of tissues that allow proper joint movement. You mentioned a key symptom of the disease: mild aching or soreness of affected joints, especially after movement or inactivity. Although osteoarthritis can occur in any joint, weight-bearing joints such as the knees, hips and spine are most commonly affected.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, exercise for osteoarthritis sufferers can help maintain flexibility in the affected joints, restore and preserve the strength of surrounding muscles and protect diseased joints from further damage. Appropriate exercises usually involve gentle movements that take the affected joints through their full range of motion. The exercise regimen may also include isometrics (tightening parts of the body without moving joints) and non- or low-impact aerobic activity, such as swimming, which promotes cardiovascular fitness.

Before resuming any exercise program, consult your physician or a rheumatologist (a physician who specializes in diseases of the connective tissue, such as arthritis). Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist to design a personal exercise plan. In addition to exercise, a comprehensive plan may include protection for the affected joints, weight control to minimize stress on weight-bearing joints, heat and cold treatments and medication to relieve discomfort.

The Arthritis Foundation offers group exercise programs for people with arthritis. For further information, contact the local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation.

QUESTION: I was widowed seven years ago (I'm 58) and am now dating several men. I'm enjoying my freedom and am not sure I want to remarry. Is single or married life best?

ANSWER: There are pros and cons with either choice. Single life and married life share similar fulfillments, disappointments, pleasures and problems. When people feel frustrated, it's usually because they aren't living the way they would like.

You may prefer to keep relationships open-ended because remarriage would mean giving up new-found independence. You may not want to support your partner financially or in ill health, jeopardize your economic benefits or give up your home.

When unmarried respondents with sexual partners were asked in a Consumer's Union survey of older adults why they didn't get married, almost half indicated they preferred things the way they were. The biggest difference between women and men was that 43 percent of the women - but only 16 percent of the men - said they couldn't get married because their partner was already married to someone else.

If marriage is your goal, someone who is committed to someone else, emotionally unstable or uninterested in a sustained relationship is not for you. Today's social climate is more permissive. Think about your views on marriage, living together and the circumstances under which sexual activity is acceptable to you. What's important is making choices with which you feel comfortable.

C) 1989 Washington Post Writers Group