Elder Journal: The Changing Faces of Love in Older Years

by Paul Takayanagi
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One of the primary gerontology concepts I teach is that of cohorts.   The definition for cohort is that persons born around the same time period, have shared life experiences that greatly influence who they are individually and collectively.  Examples of the primary cohorts alive today are the WWII generation, the Baby Boomers and GenX.  The cohort concept enables us to look at generations and groups of people and develop general and specific understanding about who they are, what their needs are and how we can better serve them.  Cohorts of persons can have similar values, tastes and trends.  They can also have the same attitudes about politics, the economy and most importantly for this month’s column, love, relationships and sex.

The attitudes about love and sex in older years has evolved over the years from being something sentimental at best and nonexistent at worst to a more realistic, practical and even pharmaceutical mindset.  While the cohorts of older adults of two decades ago were considered conservative about the ways of love, the current cohort of elders are encouraged to express themselves romantically and sexually.  Viagra, one of the most publicized pharmaceutical drugs in decades, is targeted at both older men and women.   Even though the jokes about Viagra abound, the reality is that the drug has helped thousands upon thousands of elders and their partners to have a more normal sex life.  A healthy sex life is not something promoted to primarily younger cohorts of people, as it was twenty years ago, it’s a contemporary goal for many persons in the cohort who are beyond 65 years old as well.

I was a senior center director for a time during my career in the aging field.  My staff and I often quipped that we should call our center, Senior Center 90210 or Melrose Senior Center, because the number of our senior members who were involved in highly romantic and sexually charged situations were legion.  One couple, Rose and Charlie, had just moved in together the month that I arrived as the director of the center.  Rose was 82 years old, Charlie was 90 years old.  They were both widowed.  In fact, they and their former spouses were all members of the senior center and played bridge together almost every week for years.  When Rose’s husband and Charlie’s wife died, it seemed almost natural that Rose and Charlie should start to date.  It took a few years for them to feel comfortable to do so, but after about three years, they did.  They “officially” dated for about two years and then moved in together.

One of the fascinating aspects of this contemporary elder couple, and their growing peers across the country, is that Charlie and Rose didn’t feel it was necessary to get married when they moved in together.  Something that their older peers (and cohort) of twenty years ago would most certainly have felt necessary to do.  The other interesting aspect is that their children resisted the idea of Charlie and Rose becoming a couple.  Charlie and Rose each have two adult children, a number of grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.   It’s often challenging for adult children of elder parents to accept that their elder mothers or fathers are sexually active and romantically inclined.  Whether it was for inheritance issues or just plain conservatism, their children felt that Charlie and Rose were too old to be dating and that their relationship was a dishonor to their former mates.  One way that Charlie and Rose handled the situation was to sign a kind of “pre-living together agreement” separating their assets and making their inheritance desires legal.  This helped their adult children to be more amenable about the situation, barely.  Rose has stopped talking to one of her daughters (a woman of 59 years) over her relationship with Charlie.   Fortunately, most families of elders in unmarried relationships are generally supportive.

In fact, the U.S. census bureau recently reported that unmarried couples age 65 years and older rose 73 percent between 1990-1999.  According to the Census Bureau 23 percent of all unmarried couples are over 45, and many of those couples are over 65.  This percentage is expected to increase even more between 2011 and 2020 when the Baby Boomers, one of the largest cohorts ever, begin to turn 65 years old and bring their historically more non-traditional values about love, sex, and relationships to their elder years.

While there seems to be growing support for single seniors to be sexually active and romantically involved, there are still some major issues that must be addressed.  First and foremost is that HIV education must be targeted more at the senior population as must the importance of being tested for STDs (which can be done conveniently through ordering online test kits from sites such as STDCheck.com)  While it seems surprising, it is important for staff of senior centers, retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes to provide “safe sex” education for their constituent groups. Administrators who do, however, often run into resistance from the constituent groups themselves, many of the elders’ loved ones and the general community.  Yet, HIV infection does impact the older adult population of all sexual orientations.  In fact, about 11% of all new AIDS cases are in persons over 50. Statistics also show that new AIDS cases rose faster in the over 50 population than in people under 40 years. There is an excellent website at About.com on this important issue (See Resources Below).

There are also health care, social security and pension issues related to late life, unmarried relationships to take into account. Unmarried persons, without Durable Powers of Attorney for Healthcare and Finances, cannot have influence on health care decisions should their partner become incapacitated for some reason. There is still a bias for married couples to receive benefits over single persons regardless of age. For example, in many states, unmarried couples don't receive the same legal protection or financial benefits that are automatically afforded to married couples. There are also strong incentives to remain single including if a person remarries before age 60, she or he can't collect the late spouse's Social Security payments.

All of the legal and financial issues aside, it is becoming more acceptable for older people of all ages and diverse cohorts to have non-traditional relationships and to be sexually active. This column is focused on a holistic perspective of aging that incorporates the mind, body and spirit. A healthy love relationship can make the difference for an elder to have good physical health, strong mental health and spiritual wellness too. The changing faces of love are becoming decidedly older all of the time! Rose and Charlie will be celebrating their fourth anniversary of living together soon. I wish them a long and happy (unmarried) relationship!

Resources:

For information about HIV and older adults go to http://aids.about.com/library/weekly/aa101802a.htm

For information about Viagra go to http://www.viagra.com

For the latest information on social security benefits, go to http://www.ssa.gov

About the Columnist:  Paul Takayanagi is on the faculty of the Gerontology Department at San Francisco State University. He has also taught at the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; Chabot Community College; and the Graduate Theological Union. He is also the Education Director of Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay in Berkeley, California. He is a member of the American Society on Aging and currently is a Chairperson for their Summer Series on Aging. He has presented nationally on “Holistic Gerontology” and other topics. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.  You can contact him at his email address:  westcort@hotmail.com

 

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