Meaningful loving connections are just as important to seniors as they are to younger people. Our desire for closeness and intimacy changes over time, yet it doesn’t disappear. At any age, we need companionship, human connection, closeness, and someone to share our daily feelings, thoughts, and activities with. A recent study in the UK found that individuals aged fifty to eighty-nine who were engaged in intimate activities and experienced emotional closeness had higher quality of life levels. Intimacy in all forms, physical and emotional, has a powerful impact on our wellbeing as it sustains and nurtures us.
It is no surprise then that both men and women in midlife and late adulthood attribute great importance to their spousal role, considering it to be second in importance after their role of parent.
Love at Any Age
At any age, the quality of our spousal relationship matters. Loving connection is the best antidote to loneliness and isolation, which, according to research, has negative effects on physical and mental health. For both genders of senior, strong and satisfying emotional bonds between spouses are closely related to life satisfaction and a sense of wellbeing. As I wrote in my book A Couples’ Guide to Happy Retirement and Aging, “Being a partner in a loving relationship confers protection from health problems and emotional difficulties associated with aging.”
A high degree of agreement between spouses in aspects of daily life, good conversations, and the identification of the spouse as a confidant is significantly associated with lower levels of loneliness. Loneliness is associated with pessimistic views about the future, depression, high blood pressure, and heart diseases. Chronic loneliness may shorten life expectancy even more than being overweight or smoking, as lonely people are less likely to be active and more likely to overeat. Conflict and strain can impact general health and age-related diseases, such as coronary heart disease. Additionally, marital dissensions increase the risk of depression and loneliness, resulting in low life satisfaction. Therefore, it is important to help retirement-age individuals minimize relationship discord, increase relationship satisfaction, and lean toward good and loving relationships with a strong sense of intimacy, both emotionally and physically.
Passion doesn’t belong only to the young generation. Many older adults continue to engage in sex well into their sixties, seventies, and even eighties. Indeed, 55 percent of men age sixty to eighty, and 23 percent of women of that age, report sexual satisfaction either by penetration or mutual caresses. (The lower percentage of women is attributed in part to lack of partners). The research found that seniors who engage in frequent sex are more likely to live longer. A word of caution is needed here; it could be that healthier seniors who have a loving partnership are more likely to have sex rather than assuming that sex by itself increases longevity.
Having sex releases endorphins and other hormones that help people feel better and even reduce pain. Regular sex also keeps circulation flowing to the genitals, which in itself boosts pleasure. Older men need more touching to get an erection (which might not be as hard as the erections they had in their youth) and older women need more touching to get lubricated. Testosterone supplements or other drugs, like Viagra, and vaginal lubricant may be helpful at this life stage.
Seniors often have medical problems (e.g., high blood pressure or joint pain), which may limit traditional positions of sexual activity. Different medications can also cause side effects that lower libido. However, aging individuals can remain sexually active in spite of the physiological changes. Because sensuality is an important part of life for seniors, orgasms become less important. Mutual expressions of loving, like intimate skin-to-skin contact, caresses, and heavy petting, can replace penetration. Sexual activity doesn’t need to stop; it may only need to be altered.
Physical decline, like lack of mobility and declining health that come with aging, often means that you need to rely more on your partner in a way that was not there in earlier years, and this change can add pressure. Couples should be willing to openly talk about these changes and address what is difficult for them, as well as what they would like to see happen. For example, a wife is uncomfortable with her husband’s insistence on continuing to drive and inability to let her be the primary driver (particularly at night), even though his vision has greatly deteriorated.
All couples who have been together for a while establishing patterns around many areas of their lives. For these couples, retirement and aging bring new challenges: how to spend time together and apart, division of housework, relationships with children and grandchildren, as well as how they deal with money and travel. All these issues need to be renegotiated. Much like how the birth of the first child changes marital dynamics, lack of employment brings new issues to the forefront that often cause friction. Indeed, research clearly shows that the retirement transition causes a decline in marital satisfaction in the first two years post-retirement, with both men and women reporting more conflicts and annoyance with their spouses.
Communication with minimal criticism is very important because criticism often leads to power struggles about who is right and who is wrong. Such communication patterns ruin the best intentions and damage the most loving relationships. Couples have to be prepared to have disagreements and different opinions and wishes as they age. They have to be willing to address them so that issues can be resolved. It is important to remember that there are no right or wrong answers—each couple needs to find the compromise that works best for their specific situation. It is important to align and adjust expectations as much as possible. At the same time, remember that even when differences remain, it doesn’t mean it is a bad relationship or that they were not meant to be together, or that the relationship should be terminated.
Retirement can mean more time to spend with a partner, yet increased time together can bring tension and friction to the surface and weaken even the strongest ties. Therefore, the increased time together must be combined with a revised understanding of what time together and time apart mean, taking into account the needs of each partner and giving each other space so there is a connection but not smothering.
For a couple I worked with, the wife was no longer willing to adjust her schedule according to the husband’s preferences (as was the case while he was working and traveling a lot). This post-retirement change was perceived by her husband as rejection—he feared that now that he no longer brought home money, it meant she didn’t value him, love him, or enjoy his company. He didn’t perceive it as her need to have more time alone due to being an introverted person, which she was able to have when he was traveling for work.
Creating mutual goals and activities to do together helps alleviate the differences around many of these issues.
Marital dynamics improve when partners understand each other’s point of view, what their partner is feeling or where they are coming from or what they are going through. They can figure out solutions that take into account their different needs and preferences.
For couples who are willing to address these challenges, the third age can bring much happiness, intimacy, and even stronger loving relationship than what they had in the past.
As mentioned above, emotional intimacy with a significant caring partner is very important for older adults—it can reduce loneliness and social isolation and enhance longevity. It is no surprise that divorced or widowed seniors seek new love relationships. Older people often know who they are, what they like, and what’s important to them in a significant romantic relationship. They are willing to let go of an idealized romantic fantasy of the perfect mate. Thus, their relationships tend to be more mature and realistic. As an eighty-two-year-old widow who was involved in a new romantic relationship told a New York Times reporter, “old love is wiser, quieter, yet absolutely as intense” and “growing old together can be as exciting as falling in love for the first time in one’s youth.”
Indeed, new forms of relationships that are viable alternatives to traditional marriages, like cohabitation and living apart together (which are discussed in chapter 13 of my book), are rising rapidly among the sixty-plus age group. In 2000, 1.2 million couples were engaged in such relationships; this number grew to 2.75 million in 2010 and to more than 3.3 million in 2013. These unions allow independence and privacy, while at the same time offering companionship, intimacy, and a stable loving relationship.
It is unfortunate that often there are obstacles to these older romances. Grown children or other family members can exhibit a lack of support or even opposition for seniors entering new romantic connections. They worry rightly or wrongly that the new partner might be a “gold digger” who will endanger their inheritance. In other instances, they may have a difficult time accepting a new member into the family out of loyalty to the deceased or divorced one.
Ageism is another obstacle. Society is more comfortable with the notion that older people are no longer interested in sex or romance—public displays of affection between seniors make many uncomfortable. Sadly, some seniors hold this view too; they will not seek new relationships or will be reluctant to let the relationship be public and known to their family and friends, keeping it a secret.
In summary, it’s time to rethink aging love as a very important component of seniors’ lives regardless of how long the relationship has been going on.
Sara Yogev, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author. For over 30 years she has been providing individual psychotherapy for adults struggling with depression, anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, and work- family balance as well as marital psychotherapy to couples. Some of the most common relationship problems Dr. Yogev has helped couples resolve include improving communication, emotional intimacy issues, and sexual troubles (both his and hers). In addition to individual psychotherapy and couples counseling, Sara Yogev also offers retirement coaching. Find out more about Sara Yogev and her clinical psychology practice by clicking here.