Do Older Adults Need Romance?

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Most people don’t need scientists to tell them that loving relationships have a positive impact on life. Research nevertheless confirms that married people are less likely than unmarried people to suffer from cardiovascular diseases and to develop dementia. People in relationships are more satisfied with their life and have fewer negative emotions (including loneliness and sadness) than people who are single. Couples in long-term relationships also tend to live longer than people who live alone.

Yet the same research suggests that the benefits of relationships are not always related to the experience of love. Relationships reduce stress for people who benefit from the financial support provided by a partner. Living with a partner allows the burden of child raising and homemaking to be shared. Physical intimacy may be less emotionally satisfying in the absence of romantic love, but regular sexual activity can promote self-esteem and physical enjoyment even in the absence of romance.

Are Older Adults Giving Up on Romance?

Many people still believe the debunked claim that college-educated women over the age of 40 have less than a 3% chance of getting married. While the Newsweek story that made that claim was later retracted, the false statistic “seems to have lodged itself permanently in the national psyche.”

A later analysis of census data found that a 40-year-old single woman has better than a 40% chance of marrying. Of those who do not marry, remaining single often reflects a choice rather than an inability to find a partner.

A recent New York Times article explores why “some older people who have given up looking for romantic love say they feel self-assured and satisfied on their own.” While a stigma may attach both to old age and to being single, many older adults are content with their lives and don’t want the hassle of trying to mesh with the lifestyle of another person.

After the age of 60, self-confidence generally peaks. Older adults are less likely to care about how they are perceived by others. Single adults who are older than 60 tend not to view themselves as failures because they are not married, even if younger people might see them that way. Rather, they regard themselves as free to make decisions without worrying that their decisions will conflict with a partner’s desires.

Loneliness can be an issue that affects older adults, particularly when they suffer from disabling conditions that limit their ability to socialize. Romantic relationships are one way, but not the only way, to ward off loneliness. Many older adults avoid loneliness by investing more in their friendships and family. They volunteer, take classes, participate in community programs, or find other activities that encourage socialization. 

At the same time, older adults who are not in romantic relationships often cherish their “alone time” — the opportunity to read books, work in a garden, or engage in other pleasurable activities that didn’t fit into their schedules when they were younger. As one older adult told the Times, being single promotes peace and opens up choices that might be foreclosed by a romantic relationship.

Redefining Romance

Growing old doesn’t cause people to reject love, but older adults increasingly cast aside rules and expectations that don’t fit their new lifestyles. They might choose not to marry but to balance intimacy with freedom by spending occasional evenings with a cherished friend. They might choose not to live with a partner because they value companionship more than physical intimacy. They might focus on loving themselves while rejecting the romcom ideal of living happily ever after with a perfect mate. 

When older adults have created a fulfilling life for themselves, compromising that life by wedging another person into it may feel like a bad choice. Researchers have defined Living Apart Together (LAT) as a growing trend among older adults. Relationship partners may be highly committed to each other — they may happily announce to the world that they love each other — but they choose to live in separate residences and to share time with each other on mutually convenient schedules.

In the end, “romance” means different things to different people. It does not always involve intense passion or obsessive love. Aging often brings the wisdom to reject clichés about romance and to adopt a lifestyle that best meets a senior’s needs and desires.

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