Love among the elderly proves good for their social and physical well-being

September 08, 1992|By New York Times News Service

New York -- Within a circle of very frail friends at a Queens day center for the elderly, Virginia Huerlander stood up and, nervously, began to speak of love.

"I'd given up on life," she told the group, a collection of about 15 men and women too weak to join in the regular center activities for the elderly. "I came here and got a lift, and then I went home and there was nothing."

Some of her friends could remember those days at the Forest Hills Community House, when Ginny, listless and careless of her appearance, seemed so much older than her 67 years.

After three miserable marriages, the death of her only child and two heart attacks, she had no family and little fight left.

"Due to circumstances, I met a gentleman" she continued, "although he was with someone else."

The reason for getting together may be loneliness, poverty, certain unquenched biological needs, or simply love. But whatever the reason, studies have shown that it is a good idea: Elderly people who live with a spouse or a lover live longer.

"You have someone to look after you, to get you a hot meal when you're sick, to get you to the emergency room -- and then there's the much harder thing to evaluate called affection," said Dr. Robert Butler, chairman of the department of geriatrics and adult development at the Mount Sinai Medical Center and co-author of "Love and Sex After 60."

But romance among the elderly can face plenty of obstacles. In a reversal of adolescence, elderly lovers must often overcome their children's disapproval. The living conditions in nursing homes, where even the workers sometimes discourage them, can frustrate relationships. And women, who on average live longer than men, must confront the long odds of finding a new mate.

According to some studies, men are the clearest winners when it comes to marriage late in life. After remarriage, mortality rates drop more drastically for widowers than they do for widows. "We men, especially of my age, were brought up to be dependent on women to feed us and take care of us," said Dr. Kanud Jensen Helsing, an associate at the Johns Hopkins Training Center for Public Health Research, who has studied this phenomenon, and who is 80 years old.

But Ms. Huerlander is convinced the results are no less dramatic for women. For her, falling in love meant, among many other things, that she was rescued from a nursing home she hated. And her blood pressure dropped to normal for the first time in decades, she said.

Nationally, elderly men are far more likely than women to be married. According to the census, in 1990 74.3 percent of men 65 and over were living with a spouse (not necessarily from their own age group), compared with 40.1 percent of women. The census does not track how many people over 65 marry.

Frequently, older people choose to live together rather than marry. The days of "Social Security sin," when elderly lovers would not marry be cause their Social Security benefits would be reduced, are over, Dr. Butler said, thanks to revisions to the Social Security rules in recent years. But family resistance can still prevent some couples from marrying.

"Families can feel very threatened," said Eve Poret, a social worker in Westchester who has worked for years with elderly clients.

Often, the elderly affianced sign prenuptial agreements, so children will receive their full inheritance.

But children's resentment over a parent's perceived disloyalty, or their prejudices against old people dating, are harder to allay, and as a result elderly parents sometimes hide their relationships, Ms. Poret said.

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