Despite the burgeoning population of older men and women, little is known about the intimate lives of "single again" older people following widowhood or divorce.
Several factors are associated with a person’s decision to re-partner or not in later life. They include: the nature and quality of previous relationships, the quality of the person’s current life, and cultural and social backgrounds. (For example, remarriage carries a stigma, among East Indians and the Chinese).
Recently, European researchers reported a new trend. Instead of remarriage, older divorced and widowed persons are opting for more flexible bonds with partners, such as Living Apart Together (LAT) relationships.
In a nutshell, a LAT relationship is one in which the partners continue to live in their own homes, and intermittently share households, perhaps on the weekends.
According to a recent study, by Dutch researcher Jenny de Jong Gierveld, an increasing number of older divorced and widowed adults view LAT relationships as offering the best of both worlds: intimacy with autonomy, companionship with independence.
The study consisted of 173 subjects who repartnered after the age of 50. They were selected from the 1992 NESTOR-Living Arrangements and Social Networks Survey – a representative sample of 4,494 men and women aged 55 to 89 in the Netherlands.
The report is one of several studies, published in Intimacy in Later Life (Transaction Publishers).
Study participants gave three principal reasons for starting a LAT relationship: the strong desire to continue living in the familiar setting of their homes, being able to make independent decisions about their day-to-day activities and finances, and the desire to share time with a partner to avoid loneliness.
Strong desire for independence
"You are not thinking of living together? Why?" the researcher inquired of one 84-year-old woman.
"No, that’s not what I want do, for that we are both too stubborn," replied the woman. "I believe it wouldn’t work if we were together everyday and for 24 hours. And he always gets up early in the morning! And he is always very busy; I can’t take that anymore, that’s too much for me."
Another 71-year-old woman, who described the bond between herself and her new partner as very strong said, "Since we both have a life behind us, it’s much more difficult than starting from scratch. He is an authoritarian type person. He is always trying to fix things for me," she said.
On the financial front, de Jong Gierveld notes, adults aged 65 years and older in the Netherlands today, can rely on state pension schemes that allow them to live financially independently in their own homes, unlike in the past.
"I prefer to be independent. I have one daughter – and yes, some money, and she has more children and no money. A marriage would soon bring problems. I prefer to give my money to my daughter and my grandchildren," one 84-year-old man said.
Fear of Loneliness
"I know many elderly people who start a LAT relationship, simply for the sake of companionship," an 80-year-old man said. "Most of them drink a cup of coffee together, share meals . . . to avoid feeling lonely. Weekends are awful for people who live alone," he said.
The numbers of LAT relationships were largest, among people aged 70 and over.
Women, in particular, appear to favour LAT relationships: "After a period of living alone, you have fixed habits, it is difficult to adjust . . . If you are very old, you are a whole person, and it is difficult to change your habits," one woman said.