06/05/2012 12:28 EDT | Updated 08/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Milestone 50th and 60th birthdays marked with reunions, surprises, adventures, reflection

NEW YORK, N.Y. - It started with an email to a couple of friends: "Do you want to meet in Manhattan for our 50th birthdays?"

Before she knew it, Amy Delman and more than a dozen women — some of whom hadn't seen each other since high school graduation in 1979 — were coming in from around the Northeast for a weekend in the city.

And when they finally got together, they found that they shared not just childhood memories going back to second grade, but also the need to take a deep breath and take stock of their lives in middle age.

"It's almost like a new beginning," said Delman, who grew up in Jericho, Long Island. "Our careers are set, our kids are grown, some of us have lost a parent. It's a sense of 'Wow, I'm not a kid, I'm not young, I'm in middle age, but I want to enjoy it and not have any regrets.'"

Many boomers say they are marking the milestone birthdays of middle age — 50 for those born at the tail end of the post-war Baby Boom and 60 for those born in the early 1950s — in a big way. They're jumping out of airplanes, reuniting with lifelong friends for communal celebrations and toasting the decades at elaborately planned parties. And in addition to showing off their vitality and enjoying the fellowship of loved ones, they're also reflecting on the years gone by and the decades ahead.

For some, the big birthday is all about crossing something off the bucket list. Heather Kessen and her sister, who live in Cleveland, "gifted my mom with a trip to New York City for her 60th birthday. She's never been and we thought it would be a great way to celebrate."

Liz Gamble of Henderson, Nev., wanted to spend her 50th jumping out of a plane, and her sister, who lives in Florida, surprised her by showing up the morning of the skydive with her best friend and a limo for the ride to the airport. "Once I stopped screaming, it was the most amazing experience," Gamble said.

Harriette Rose Katz, a high-end New York party planner, says some boomers use milestone birthdays to relive their youth. Through her business, Gourmet Advisory Services, she's organized blowout 50th birthday parties with 200 guests and musical acts ranging from the late Donna Summer to the '80s rock band Foreigner. "They can get pretty rowdy," said Katz.

Those turning 60 often find themselves honoured by loved ones with a surprise party. Reggie Ishman was tricked into thinking he'd be celebrating his 60th with his wife, Sybil, in Charleston, S.C. Instead, he ended up on a flight to St. Lucia where a niece and her husband, wearing disguises, were seated one row ahead. More relatives joined them on the island, where activities included parasails and zip lines.

Sybil Ishman observed that boomers think of 60 in two different ways: "We are quite logical in thinking that today many healthy older folks often reach 100, but 120? Not so likely. So the probability of doubling our age is pretty slim to none. ... However, the other side of our brain likes a good challenge and knows that today, 60 is not a big deal, so we take on 60 with all our might."

Jane Angelich's surprise 60th reinforced her feelings of youthfulness: It was hosted by her 87-year-old dad, who hopped a plane from Florida to California despite a recent hip replacement, and the guests included her husband, who's 11 years younger than she is. "Age 60 was a milestone to be celebrated, not ignored," she said.

For Fred Pescatore, turning 50 has become a way to reconnect with a group of friends who shared a summer house in the Hamptons when they were in their 20s. "It started a few years back when the first one of us turned 50," said Pescatore, a Manhattan physician specializing in nutrition and diet. "We all went to St. John, where the birthday girl hosted a party and had rented a house for all of us to stay in. It was such a nice thing for us to get away, get out of the city, be together and relax, that everybody wanted to do it."

Last year, two more from the group held 50th birthday parties in Rome and London, and Pescatore will be next. He's inviting his pals to the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where he has a house, in February. Typically, guests bring spouses but no kids, and handle their own airfare, while the host provides lodging and meals. "This is like having our share house back again," he said.

Why did the round-robin of celebrations for the group come at the half-century mark?

"At 50, you're still working hard, but if you're fortunate enough to have achieved a certain modicum of success, you can look back on it and reflect a little," said Pescatore. "You start thinking about who's important to you, who's not important, what your values are. When you were younger, 50 seemed so old, but when you turn 50, you see it's not really old at all."

Delman expressed a similar sentiment about the disorienting experience of being right in the middle of the life cycle: "When our kids see us, we're old. In the workplace, we're the seasoned professionals. When we go to the doctor, it's no longer, 'If you were my daughter...' It's, 'If you were my mother, or my sister.'"

Despite the passage of time, she added, "to us, we look exactly the same way we did in high school." But at one point in their weekend away, reality intruded: "A bunch of 13-year-old girls went walking by and gave us a look as if to say, 'Actually, you look like middle-aged women.'"

For some boomers, a milestone birthday can also be a powerful testament to survival. Bonnie Lou Gross and Connie Sue Fleetwood are identical twins who for the past 13 years have gotten together with a few other friends from as far back as grade school to celebrate their birthdays, which all fall in March. Others in their small Iowa community with March birthdays have joined in over the years, and the event is now known locally as "March Madness."

The most recent joint birthday celebration was extra-special, the sisters recalled, as they marked not only their 50th birthdays but also Fleetwood's survival after a malignant melanoma diagnosis made back in 1992.

"I've got that 20-year battle behind me now," said Fleetwood, "and I can't say enough how fortunate I feel to reach that 50 milestone."