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Study: Playing the Love Card in Later Life

 

Widowhood, or late life divorce, may make it harder for some older adults to sustain intimate ties in later life. But a recent study by Dr. Ingrid Arnet Connidis, a professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, shows older adults use a variety of traditional and nontraditional options to sustain intimacy in later life. The study findings are published in Age Matters (Routledge, 2006).

The author identified ways older adults use to sustain intimacy:

Long-term marriage: Most older men are married, and among the minority of older women who have partners, most are also married. Not all long-term marriages provide intimacy: some do, some do not.

In one study of marriages lasting 50 years or longer, researchers found three types of relationship:

1. Connected couples, who share high levels of closeness, intimacy, and dependency;

2. Functional separate couples who are happy, caring, and satisfied with their relationship while enjoying different activities and independence;

3. Dysfunctional separate couples who are distant and dissatisfied with their relationship.

Remarriage: Most older adults do not remarry. For those who do, marriage may mean something different. As one 69-year-old Dutch former widower put it:

It’s not as if you can go back to your youth by getting married again. My first wife and I were 22 when we met; we were just beginning our lives as adults. We were strongly attracted to one other and planned to build a life together. Our four children gave us an incredibly strong bond. The new relationship is also important but not the same. For one thing, you know, it can never last long. If I live to be 80, then we have 10 years together. If I make it to 85, we’ll have 15 years. But then you’re really old . . . it’s a totally different relationship.

Cohabitation: Cohabitation is more common among all age groups today, including those aged 50 and older. The author reports that among middle-aged and old women, cohabiting ranks as well as marriage in terms of well-being.

Same-sex partnerships: In Canada, marriage is the new alternative for gays and lesbians. A substantial number of older gays and lesbians are single. According to the author, aging couples face unique challenges when they confront health problems in settings that do not honour same-sex partnerships. Indeed, fear of negative treatment leads some old gay men and lesbians to avoid seeking required services.

A separate study by Kathleen Slevin of the College of William and Mary (Virginia, U.S.) shows older lesbians bolster personal support by spending the bulk of their time with other lesbians. Miriam, 61, says: "I’m never around straight people. Since I quit work I was trying to think the other day when was the last time I went among straight people . . . and it suddenly occurred to me that I haven’t seen straight people in so long."

Living Apart Together (LAT) relationships have become increasingly common over the last two decades, particularly in Europe. A LAT relationship is one in which the partners continue to live in their own homes, and intermittently share households, perhaps on the weekends.

Older adults favour LAT relationships for several reasons. Some prefer to live in their own homes. As one 63-year-old Dutch woman, previously widowed, puts it: "He’s a lovely man, but I know him well and I couldn’t have him living in my house. I couldn’t stand being bossed around. He’s extremely neat, can’t stand to have anything on the table or on the floor. It would drive me crazy."

Some have financial reasons: "I prefer to be independent," one 84-year-old father says. "I have one daughter . . . and, yes, some money, and she has more children and no money. A marriage would soon bring problems. I do prefer to give my money to my daughter and my grandchildren."

Others want to avoid responsibility. For example, one 85-year-old man and his partner made an agreement that if either of them suffers a major health setback the relationship would end. "At our age it’s impossible to care for a sick partner," he says.

Imaginary intimates: For some older adults, reminiscing about cherished relationships in the past is an important source of intimacy. The author reports: "Thinking about someone who was important in our lives and imagining interactions with them is one way of sustaining intimacy in later life."

Dating in later life: Widowed men are more interested in dating than are widowed women, according to the study. In a recent survey of 3,500 unattached Americans aged 40 to 69 years, one out of three participants was dating one person exclusively at the time of the study.

One-third of the women aged 40 to 69 were dating younger men. Men and women in their 50s dislike dating partners with a lot of baggage as well as those who want to get serious too fast. Among daters aged 40 to 69, those in their 60s are happiest. They are also more reluctant to marry.

Steady companions: Finally, for some older adults, intimacy lies in ongoing platonic relationships with the opposite sex. In the Netherlands, steady companions are committed to doing things together. They share affection for one another, and help one another but they do not identify themselves as couples.

However, this option may be less likely in small, rural Canadian communities due to the misunderstandings they might create. This is unfortunate, according to the author, because steady companions are as effective as marital, cohabiting, and LAT relationships at staving off loneliness among older persons.