We’ve seen a spike in stories about sex in nursing homes over the last few years—and they always have titillating headlines, almost designed to induce a giggle, as if the thought of romance and intimacy post-retirement was something out of a corny 80s sitcom.
These stories miss the point—they focus on grabbing attention or the shock value, rather than on real relationships and intimacy. They also ignore the growing population of aging adults who continue to live at home. Entering new relationships away from the self-selecting population at nursing homes can be fraught with emotional peril, especially if you’ve been led to believe that it is somehow ridiculous to desire a new relationship at an older age. But people can find love, intimacy, and physical pleasure at any stage of life: you just have to know what you want and feel confident enough to go after it.
Understanding Relationships as You Age
Byron. Rimbaud. Yeats. The great Romantic poets always emphasized youth and vitality as the keys to love—a sort of earthy virility that could only exist in the bosom of first bloom. And that’s been the social trend for hundreds of years; but what do we do with the fact that modern life expectancy has more than doubled since Keats’ day? Now that people are, on average, living longer, the idea of entering a new relationship past middle age has become more appealing and much more prevalent. Think of a woman who loses her husband at 63. She could reasonably expect to live another 20-30 years—that would be more than a quarter of her life spent potentially alone. Yet, society has tended to discourage entering into new relationships at her age.
However, as I mentioned in a previous interview, “Connections are what bind us to life. We need to break through these barriers that insist that intimacy and sexuality is only the terrain of younger people.” Loneliness is a major cause of depression, and even suicide. Feeling that loneliness is to be expected because of society’s ideals is a terrible precedent. Older adults do not need to accept these relationship norms if they don’t want to—it’s all about choice and independence.
The Challenges of Dating When Living At Home
Of course, deciding that you are ready to “get out there” isn’t always easy for older adults. There is the most commonly assumed reason of embarrassment over diminished sexual capacity, but also the same, very human, reasons that you may have felt in high school or after a mid-life divorce: it’s intimidating to meet people and to put yourself out there, proof that some things about relationships never change. If you are aging at home, as opposed to in a care or retirement facility, it can be even more difficult to meet someone new, though there are ways.
Online dating is a very popular choice. This seems like the ultimate “young person” activity, but it absolutely is not. Online dating can be a fun and safe way to meet people in your age group, who have similar interests, without having to “go out to a bar,” or some similar clichéd rendezvous spot. If you need help with the basics of getting online, ask a caregiver, family member, or attend a program to help seniors improve their digital literacy. There doesn’t need to be any stigma attached to dating online, so please don’t feel embarrassed to ask for some guidance.
Of course, when it comes to online dating, we always advise older adults to be thoughtful and honest when creating their profiles. Waiting for someone to respond to your messages may trigger anxiety—and rejection can be devastating at any age. As a fairly new way of meeting people—and much different than bumping into someone at a friend’s barbecue or a church social—there is no guidebook for this experience. Bringing a sense of patience to the process, and understanding that it is only one way to socialize, may help ease any stress and make the online dating world seem more relaxed and fun. And, if engaging with dating websites is triggering depression, anxiety or despair, it is important to speak with family, friends, or a professional about your feelings.
In addition to, or perhaps instead of online dating, there are also local social activities. Even if you aren’t looking to date, social isolation can be a literal killer. There are a lot of groups, classes, and events specifically designed for older adults, including ones sponsored by the city or organizations like IOA. There are also informal activities, like Tai Chi, cooking classes, or tours that are planned with seniors in mind—all great ways to meet people who share your interests while minimizing the pressures of “dating.”
Find Your Personal Happiness
None of this is to say that there won’t be challenges—relationships will always have their difficulties, perhaps especially as you age. For instance, gender imbalance plays a role in dating for older adults—according to some studies, after the age of 70 there is a 4:1 female to male ratio. But these difficulties can be overcome with a little confidence, patience, and positivity.
Don’t fall prey to stereotypes about yourself or others. Yes, there are older men who are looking for younger women, just as there are older women looking for younger men. But there are also many who are looking for a companion to understand them, one who is at the same stage in life. It may help you to remember that everyone dating is in the same boat: they all may be struggling with fear of what society thinks, unwarranted shame at lowered physical capabilities or nerves about what their children will have to say about their relationship status. Chances are, most people you date will be having the same insecurities.
As with any fear, those surrounding dating as an older adult can only be conquered by stepping out of your comfort zone and getting back out there. If you feel ready to date, have a relationship, share physical intimacy—or even have a one-night stand—that is your right, at any age. The same rules apply to you as they do to younger people: be smart, be safe, and be respectful of the other person. No one questions whether a young person should have the companionship they desire, and it shouldn’t be questioned in older adults either. Regardless of age, we all have the capacity for great love.
At Institute on Aging, we work with older adults, their caregivers, and their families to understand the challenges and joys of aging. Connect with us to learn more about our programs.