Older couples fare best if they embrace change

January 11, 1994|By Elise T. Chisolm

She called me long-distance to ask for advice. I had grown up with Anne (not her real name) and her husband. I could not give her professional help, but I could listen.

"He never talks to me anymore; he reads and looks at television all the time. I leave the house and keep busy -- he stays home. We seem to be drifting apart. Aren't we meant to be having fun?"

They are 70 years old and in good health. She says she feels like she's living in a vacuum. "We don't have anything in common now that the kids have gone and are living their own lives in other places. I am so lonely."

I reminded her that they are in good health and should be grateful. But I can tell she is very depressed. They used to be the golden couple -- friends, family and their jobs filled their lives with activity.

After Anne and I explored the medical possibilities for her husband's lethargy and found nothing, I concluded she needs to get busier, and he does too -- although he tells her he is very content.

After the kids leave home, some retirees say, "Oh, it's a wonderful life," and they start to travel or pursue hobbies. But I know many seniors who can't afford to travel. Contrary to the retirement ads of smiling seniors in gondolas or golf carts, these options are not always open to them.

What I see more often are the effects of the sounds-of-silence syndrome -- my name for it -- with other couples my age.

I often observe them in restaurants, sitting, eating, but not talking.

My husband and I have avoided this syndrome. When we eat out, we talk because we feel lucky we still have one another. Usually we have been busy during the day and away from one another -- therein may lie the secret.

But back to Anne. These are their golden years, I tell her. So we laugh a little, and she cries a little. I suggest if she is that depressed, and he may be, too, that they should both seek counseling.

Kay Seiler, former director of the Center of Aging at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and now a consultant on aging, thinks Anne's husband should be medically evaluated with a full geriatric assessment. She says: "He is experiencing lack of socialization. But generally we have found that libido, romance, energy do not necessarily decline with aging. Professionals are seeing more and more active seniors taking advantage of all the thriving senior centers and other endless resources for retired couples."

One of the problems, the counselor adds, is that couples do not plan for retirement, although many companies are offering that service now. She adds that retirees should set parameters for their new activities and leisure time.

When asked about the "silent partner" syndrome, Dr. Marsden McGuire, director of geriatric psychiatry at Francis Scott Key Medical Center in Baltimore, says that this silence usually is not a disease or a serious depression.

"I don't even think it is a personality change in most cases. With most older people, personalities are preserved over time. It is the external circumstances that have changed for the partners. Without the familiar focus on their daily jobs, the structured family life to fall back on, the elderly find themselves facing increasing demands on their flexibility. In most cases, their routine has vastly changed."

Perhaps change is the key word for Anne and her husband and a mantra for most of us. Life should not be static. No matter how long it endures.

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