happy senior couple

Romance Has No Age Limit

Romance is like happiness—you know it when it happens, but it is hard to define. However, it is the missing ingredient in many older individuals’ lives—the excitement of being with someone special that might or might not lead to a real attachment. One widow reported the thrill she got when a casual date held her hand through a movie. There’s a human need for touch and contact.

There are many forms of romance. Of course, there are those who are totally disinterested. One woman said, “I am through with pots and pans and prostate glands.” Then there are those who are friends and dating, followed by those who are together but apart, travel together, have a romantic attachment. There are those who are in committed relationships, are sexually involved but do not live together followed by those who live together but do not marry. And there are those who live together and marry. According to Pew Research Center, 53% of Americans 55 and older are remarried. When I was writing a story, “Does Saturday Night Have to Be The Loneliest Night of The Week?” I called Match.com and asked about older people’s interest in the internet. I was told about Molly, age 90 and Ed, age 82. They met online and found they both loved Scotch and Shakespeare. Match.com paid for their wedding.

So, what are the elephants in the room? Answer—sex, adult children, illness and caregiving.  When Marianne, age 80, told her doctor that she was beginning to date, her doctor insisted she have an HIV test. The woman explained that she had lived for 50 years in a monogamous marriage. The doctor said that the test provides your right to insist that he have such a test. The next time was with a man she had dated for over a month she asked, “Have you heard of the epidemic of AIDS among seniors?” He looked at her, wondering where she was going with that statement. She found the entire subject too embarrassing, and she backed off.  Sex and the possibility of it is clearly a big elephant in the room.

But sex is not the only unspoken issue–what about money? Who pays? If you believe in equality of the sexes, do you insist on paying? Do you let the man pay for a while, but when do you jump in? There is no one size fits all. Just be aware you need to bring it up and speak about your views and his views.

Regarding adult children’s reactions, they run the gamut from real interference and sabotage to horror and anger to total support. One woman recounted the evening she took a date to her son and daughter-in-law’s for dinner. Her son was unusually quiet. The next day she asked him what was going on. He answered, “I looked at you with someone other than my dad and thought I was going to throw up.” In this case there was a happy ending. Over time, the son became very close to the new man in his mother’s life. But many stories do not work out, especially if the adult children are worried that their inheritance will be compromised.

Maybe the biggest issue to be resolved is what happens when illness becomes a major factor. One couple who did not plan to ever marry but decided to live together told each other they could never be caregivers again. They were clear on that. Now they are facing that challenge. The woman is slowing down and has been diagnosed with dementia. At what point does her partner leave or does he hang in there?

Late life romances are both wonderful and unsettling. On the one hand, we all need to matter to someone else, to love and be loved, to touch and be touched. However, there are unsettling issues to be resolved. The only advice is to talk about all these issues in advance and make a clear plan—knowing that you might have to go to Plan B.

According to George Vaillant, the director from 1972 to 2002 of the 75-year old longitudinal Harvard study (The Harvard Grant Study), one of the most comprehensive studies of adult behavior, love is the key to happiness. Romance that can lead to love is a lifelong concern with one big difference– teenagers worry about pregnancy, older people about adult children, caregiving and illness. But the main point is that romance and love have no age limit.