For many, “romance” is a thing for youth. We often do not imagine that our elderly relatives could desire a romantic or sexual relationship, but, nothing is further from the truth. At any age, we need companionship, warmth, human touch, and someone to share in our daily activities. While many people thankfully grow up enough to stop the wild idealized fantasy of a “perfect” soul mate and attempts to find endless romantic bliss, people of all ages do still enjoy the warmth and closeness that a romantic relationship can provide. In older populations, these relationships can be quite satisfying and romantic - while also mature and realistic.
Obstacles to Romance
There are certainly a few obstacles to romance in old age, though. For one thing, women outlive men and men tend to want a partner who is younger. This leaves many older females without suitable dates. And while our romantic hearts may not grow old, our bodies and brains do. Things like a lack of mobility and general declining health can make a sexual relationship difficult.
Other obstacles are social and more related to new relationships. Grown children or other family members can show a lack of support and acceptance for a senior entering into a new relationship. Some fears are justified - in the case of an elderly parent with dementia or other types of cognitive decline. People in those situations may not be able to fully give consent. Some adult children worry – rightly or wrongly - that a new partner is just looking for security or money as in the case of the classic “gold-digger.” Other adult children may just be having a hard time accepting a new member into the family out of loyalty to a deceased parent or a dislike of change. No matter what the objection, our society seems to allow adult children to have a “say” in whether a parent is “allowed” to date once that parent reaches a certain advanced age. Whether this is justified or not is quite debatable and obviously depends on the situation – but this lack of support can be an obstacle for some nevertheless.
Another obstacle is isolation. Due to mobility issues or living with adult children, there are sometimes few opportunities to meet a new person. And while some dating websites are geared for older people, not everyone is tech savvy enough or comfortable enough with such dating services. For people who live in assisted living situations, dating occurs more frequently since it is simply easier to meet people your own age.
How to Avoid Senior Isolation
Avoiding Caregiver Isolation
Ageism is another factor inhibiting romance. In general, our society seems more comfortable thinking that older people simply do not have sex or simply are not interested in anything but bingo and playing bridge. So, even for long-term married couples, public displays of intimacy and open discussion of intimacy are not always comfortable. And, sadly, some seniors also hold this ageist view and this can present a self-imposed obstacle.
What We Know About of Elderly Romance
Research shows us that for one thing, we don’t know that much about sex and the elderly! In one study, only 22 percent of women and 38 percent of men had discussed sex with a doctor since age 50. And until recently, this was not a big area of interest for researchers. With the booming population of seniors, more are looking into it.
Findings we do have suggest that most of us will continue to have sex well into our 80’s and that the number one reason for not engaging is simply a lack of a partner – especially for women. Another reason is health status.
We also have some evidence to suggest that the more often we engage in sex, the more likely we are to live longer. While it could be that healthier people are more likely to do both things, having a partner and having sex can release endorphins and other hormones that help us feel better, reduce pain, and ease anxiety. Loneliness is a big predictor of health problems like depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease. People who are lonely are more likely to be pessimistic about the future and more likely to lead to needing long-term care. And, lonely people are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like overeating or not exercising.
Many people will urge a lonely elder to “get out more.” But what does that mean? Often, the same things that help younger people engage socially are the same things that would work for seniors. For example, volunteering time toward a cause can have you meeting others, taking a class, working out in a gym, or joining a club. While this is no guarantee of finding a romantic relationship, it will at least get a person more engaged and increase the odds of meeting someone in his or her peer group.
Many lonely elders will enter into an assisted living situation in order to find a group of peers; if this is not possible, seeking out a senior center can offer daily or weekly activities. This is a common move after the death of a spouse. Extra support is needed after the death of a spouse and family and friends may need to make an effort to extend themselves and make themselves available to a recently widowed person.
Some problems are simply caused by a lack of transportation. For rural seniors, finding a way into town can be a real barrier to meeting others or engaging in activities.
Lastly, we need to address the ageism that can also be a barrier for seniors who think they cannot pursue a relationship due to age. We need to change our view of seniors in general to include anticipating the full range of human activity is possible and desirable for all.
Concerns About Elderly Relationships
While most people on dating sites are sincere, there are scammers who use those portals to sweet talk their way into a person’s wallet. Of all online romance scams, women over 50 are most likely to be taken in for their cash – losing $34 million in the U.S. in 2012. What do the scammers do? They literally sit and make hundreds of email and social media messages a day until they find a willing victim. A few weeks after they make a romantic connection, the scammer will ask for a small amount of money for an emergency of some sort and then it will happen again with larger amounts.
But what about "in-person" romance? Well, unfortunately, this can happen in person as well. Some signs that there may be a problem are:
- The new partner is overly interested in their target’s finances
- The new partner is asking for and getting very expensive gifts
- The new partner is vague or mysterious about his or her past, future, family, or friends
- Or, this person’s life story is inconsistent, doesn’t check out or make sense
- person slowly isolates the senior – somehow causing conflict or rifts within the family or socially so that their partner has fewer supports outside of the new romance.
Another danger for senior romance? STDs! While many of us consider sexually transmitted diseases to be a concern for teenagers and young adults, the Center for Disease Control reported that STDs among those over the age of 40 have increased a whopping 45 percent from 2000 to 2008. One reason this is a larger danger for seniors is simply that they and their doctors may not even be concerned about preventing these diseases and may not be looking for them. Untreated STDs can cause serious complications for anyone – but can compound other common health problems of seniors.
One last concern is the very real need to intervene when a senior is cognitively challenged by dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.
But, aside from these concerns, on the balance, romantic relationships are very healthy for most seniors and should be enjoyed, supported, and celebrated!