What once was shocking is now out in the open, though the subject still raises a few eyebrows. Romance in late life does exist. Statistics are hard to come by, but based on my acquaintance with older people around the state, I conclude that new relationships among people in their 70s and 80s are thriving. It makes sense.
With longer life and better health, there are more opportunities and more motivation to find that special person. And whatever one may think about the shift in cultural values, a more open society has made elders less fearful of criticism or ridicule.
A late life romance does, however, present some issues that we didn’t face at age 25. Consider some of the decisions that the older new couple may have to work through.
Shall we get married? Once the answer would have been, “Of course.” Now, however, some couples decide that they are secure in their commitment and “at this age” they are simply not interested in the formal status. Of course, many older couples do choose to marry. They want to express their love by taking this step. Family feelings can also influence this decision.
What about the children? Are the children and grandchildren in support of our relationship? They may be thrilled for Mom’s or Dad’s happiness. But sometimes one’s children are possessive of your time and attention. They may worry that a parent is taking on a potential burden of an older spouse’s unexpected illness. They may be embarrassed by the new romance. I recently heard two sisters say, “How can you do this to the memory of our mother — she’s been gone just a year?” I understood, but I also realized that their father is 79 years old and may well be feeling the pressure of time.
Who owns what? In a common property state, assets acquired during the marriage remain the property of the individual who acquired the asset. But there will likely be other financial issues to resolve. One significant concern may be to assure that the inheritance for one’s children is protected. Couples who choose to marry should consider a prenuptial agreement and estate planning.
Shall we live together? Readers might be surprised at the number of committed couples who keep their separate residences. Though Ron and Anne (not their real names) of Manchester have been partners for 15 years, they live apart. Ron, after two marriages, feels that he is best suited for living alone, in an apartment. He has no interest in householding. Anne likes her modest home and yard. They talk almost daily and spend most weekends and holidays together. They share friends and family events. No one doubts their commitment.
Older people often have quite specific preferences. They have homes that suit them. One partner lives in the country and wants to remain there. The other likes the downtown environment. They agree to a commuting relationship. Most couples, though, decide that being together full time is what they want. Their years together may be few, but well worth the effort of putting their households together. Some solve the his/hers issue by giving up both existing homes and choosing a new place in which to live together.
Can we blend our traditions and tastes? Long-term couples have patterns shared over decades. New, late-life couples present one another with habits and family traditions that may not “match” easily. Whose children and grandchildren get Gram for Thanksgiving? How do we work out conflicts? (“What? You have enchiladas for Christmas dinner?”) Any new relationship has issues to resolve, but in late life, it needs to be done quickly. Marvin and Beth, of Keene, began living together in their mid 70s. They made a conscious decision to establish their own, new traditions. They also agreed that they would not always insist on being accompanied to family gatherings.
What about sex? Sex at 75 may at first be a frustrating and painful surprise. Arthritis and other health issues can interfere with expectations. A post-menopausal woman who has been unpartnered for many years will need lubrication. A phone call or visit to one’s gynecologist can solve the problem. She may prescribe a topical cream containing a low dose of estrogen that gradually stimulates one’s own natural lubricant. An older man may not have the sexual capacity that he once enjoyed. He, too, may find that medication solves the problem. But desire, patience and tenderness often provide the solution. Some couples find that sex is even better than in their youth. “We aren’t exhausted from work and family,” says one friend. “And we’ve shed the habits of blame or guilt that we once had.”
How much time do we have? I don’t think new couples are more fearful than other older couples. But there is an awareness that the new relationship may be of short duration. Marvin and Beth, mentioned above, were together two years before Beth began a rapid decline into dementia and soon, death. Some couples decide to change their documents that deal with the end of life to reflect the new relationship.
Others leave the documents as they are. It’s a good idea to discuss such issues with one’s children. If your son, for example, is to remain the responsible person in medical decision-making, will he welcome your new partner into the conversation about life support or other critical choices?
It’s a brave new world for couples in late life. We have more freedom than our parents could have imagined. We have choices that let us experience the delight of a new love. NH
This article appears in the December 2008 issue of New Hampshire Magazine