Love in the golden years
February 14, 2014
Roberta and Joe Day exchanged glances and laughed while sitting in their room at the Golden Empire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Grass Valley. On Feb. 6, the couple celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary.
When asked about their courtship in the 1950s, their faces lit up and answers were often peppered with glances and giggles.
"We met at a nightclub that used to be between Grass Valley and Nevada City," said Roberta. "A friend from Joe's church introduced us. I probably thought he was handsome."
"What was special about Roberta? She was single and so was I," said Joe with a chuckle and a wink. "We got married after three months. I definitely married the right gal."
“A friend from Joe’s church introduced us. I probably thought he was handsome.”
“What was special about Roberta? She was single and so was I.”
After decades filled with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the Days continue to truly enjoy each other's company, said Helen Vanderhoof, activity director at Golden Empire.
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"They push their beds together," she said. "Sometimes I see them holding hands."
The Days are not typical when it comes to their 80-something peers. To begin with, women live an average of eight years longer than men — and at most assisted living facilities, there is an average of seven women for every man.
But that doesn't mean that budding romances don't exist, say the experts.
Despite the media's tendency to mock and minimize the emotional life of seniors, studies show that dating, love and romance are not the exclusive domain of the young. Life expectancies are increasing, and as the baby boomers of the free-love era move into senior living facilities, romance has become a more important part of seniors' lives, asserts Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and of medicine-geriatrics at the University of Chicago.
Lindau's survey, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, found that an increasing number of people continue to have physical, romantic relationships into their 80s — demonstrating that sexuality is an important part of life at any age.
"I see more women interested in relationships than men," said Vanderhoof of daily life at Golden Empire.
"Men can be a little flirty, but it's the higher-functioning women who always make the first move. One of our female residents told me, 'Love and sexuality are my right — what can I do about it?' She wanted to meet more men, so she started a social group. Just because you're elderly doesn't mean you want to stop wanting to mix."
"Given the complications associated with frail health, limited privacy, and diminished cognitive functioning, nursing homes are often ill-equipped to support the romantic and sexual needs of their residents. Under the medical model that serves as the framework for most institutional care settings, these needs are not even recognized," wrote Amanda Smith Barusch, Ph.D., author of "Love Stories of Later Life: A Narrative Approach to Understanding Romance."
But there are innovative approaches that are changing the way Americans think about institutional care, she said.
"Social workers already play an important role in humanizing these settings," Smith Barusch continued. "And the coming decades should see expanded opportunities to develop and test new paradigms for institutional care of older adults, paradigms that take into account the not-so-remote possibilities of romance, new love, and yes, even sex."
Senior courtship can come with a unique set of challenges, said Vanderhoof. When a person's competence is diminished due to dementia, family and staff supervision is key.
While working at another facility, Vanderhoof witnessed a blossoming romance between two residents, both of whom had Alzheimer's disease.
"It was like an old-fashioned romance — they took walks in the garden," she said. "We had to get permission from the family to let her move into his room. They were both in their late 80s — it does happen."
As baby boomers age, families will find themselves faced with a host of questions when it comes to senior romance: Should the elderly be allowed to marry? Should they live together as husband and wife? How does one decide whether couples are cognitively able to consent to intimacy? In the matters of love, what are the rights of people with dementia?
These are just a few of the questions that are being asked as "elder love" becomes more common in communal settings, wrote columnist and elder care consultant Carol Bradley Bursack in her agingcare.com piece entitled, "Sex in Retirement Communities — Who Decides What's Proper?"
"Nurses and Certified Nursing Assistants have traditionally been trained how to handle the occasional randy elderly man who makes a pass at the CNA who is bathing him. That is nothing new," she wrote. "What is new is the recognition that elders have rights and one of those rights just might be sexual expression."
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.
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