Love in the Senior Years

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By Marcy Shoemaker, Psy.D.

This article also appeared as part of our monthly column with the Jewish Exponent.

If you were asked to complete the phrase, “what is love …,” what would you write?  From the beginning of time, poets, scientists, philosophers and people of all ages have debated the definition of love. Love has been described in many ways, including as an intense feeling of affection, an attraction to another individual or thing, or a deep romantic feeling. At the same time, scientists believe that love is a chemical reaction. Perfume manufacturers have even tried to replicate what they believe is the smell of love. However, they have not had great success, most likely because love is unique to each individual.

Despite various interpretations, the definition and concept of love remains an ambiguous topic. The only thing that we can be certain of is that love will continue to be discussed and debated across disciplines and cultures. One belief that is often pondered is if love only belongs to the young. Our society often associates love with springtime and youth. But sociologists, psychologists and scientists have reinforced in studies that the feelings and thoughts of love occur throughout the lifespan and is equally important to both young and old.

In our modern world, where people are living longer, there is no reason seniors should not continue to develop romantic and meaningful relationships. For unexplained reasons, mature love has often been a topic fraught with taboos and misconceptions. Because the U.S. population is saturated with aging baby boomers, more and more seniors will experience various states of love. While interviewing a gentleman in his mid-eighties about his recent romantic relationship he said, “I feel like a teenager. I think of her all the time. My kids are embarrassed when they read my texts and see me blush when we are together.” Family and friends may feel uncomfortable or concerned when a senior family member begins a new relationship. There may be financial fears, including worries about loss of inheritance or, in the case of a senior who is suffering with dementia, concerns about an outsider taking advantage. Safety concerns may exist due to sexually transmitted diseases and concern about a senior’s adherence to medications for chronic illnesses that may not be observed.

There are definite barriers in our society to senior dating. Women live approximately eight years longer than men. This leaves many widowed women who are interested in dating but unable to find a partner. Societal norms of beauty affect how seniors date as our society often associates beauty with youth, leaving mature women feeling unattractive.  To reinforce this feeling, older men may actively seek younger partners to date and/or marry.  Regarding aging, Gloria Steinem stated, “Men are seen as gaining experience and more distinguished as they age.”

However, love does not need to be defined strictly by romance. Love can be experienced from friendship with another, including pets and hobbies. Seniors may look for friends who share their interests and overall outlook toward life. Strong relationships can prevent illness both physical and mental later in life and provide purpose and needed socialization. Many seniors find purpose in caring for pets, plants, starting new hobbies, reaching out to friends via phone or computer, volunteering and being involved with their families.

As we think about the initial request to complete the phrase, “what is love….,” we will surely come up with many answers. No definition will be the same and we may have many answers to this question. New York Times best-selling author Lisa Scottoline offers this eloquent definition, “Love is unchartered territory. So is life. We truly do not know what will happen to us tomorrow. All of it is unmapped to us, yet we sail on.” Whatever love is, one thing is for sure, love knows no age, young or old.