Moving on -- hand in hand

Dating: Remarriage and relationships after the death of a spouse are becoming more and more common.

Life after 50

June 18, 2000|By Deborah Stoudt | Deborah Stoudt,Special to the Sun

Many of us fear that if our spouses die, we'll become grumpy old people and a burden to our children and friends. We imagine no one will want us as our bodies start to deteriorate and our hair turns gray.

However, many seniors who have experienced the loss of a husband or wife know that happiness may be a phone call or dance away. They are learning to build new relationships, often with the opposite sex. Some feel as giddy as teen-agers experiencing their first love.

Relationships are important as we grow old, experts say. Our desire for physical closeness continues well into old age.

"We need to be touched," says Marcella Bakur Weiner, a therapist in New York City for 28 years and author of several books on aging and sexuality. "Without it, you suffer." According to an AARP/Modern Maturity survey last year of people age 45 and older, a good relationship with a spouse or partner is even more important than sexual activity.

Finding a partner isn't always easy, especially for women, because statistically they outlive men. The number of women with partners drops significantly as people age, according to the AARP survey. At age 45-59, 70 percent of women and 84 percent of men have partners. But at age 75 and older, only 21 percent of women have partners, compared with 58 percent of men.

But it doesn't mean all is hopeless. Many seniors of all ages are dating and remarrying. The choices of lifestyle vary according to individual needs.

"Some people are looking for companionship and love," says Dee Hood, director of the Senior Network of Baltimore. "Others say I don't need that. They are involved with their grandchildren or women friends. Seniors respect each other's choices."

Relationship benefits

Forging a meaningful relationship comes with benefits. "All the statistics say people who are married or with somebody live longer," says Weiner. "It makes sense. There's nothing like having a human being around. There's someone there for you. Somebody to talk to, rely on, make love with, share TV with."

It's the companionship and love that most of us crave, she says. Some spouses understand that and encourage their partner to remarry after they're gone. Before Chloe Milton died at 79 after a long battle with emphysema and other lung ailments, she and her husband, Clare, talked about his getting remarried. They'd been married nearly 50 years, and she wanted him to find another partner.

"She talked about it a lot. It was almost embarrassing," recalls Clare Milton, now 81. "She knew I'm not built to be alone. I don't need a lot of friends, but I do need someone to be close to who can satisfy my need for companionship and fellowship, someone who I can hug and hold."

He didn't really know Betty Townsend, then 66, when he invited her to the theater with him two weeks after his wife died. He'd heard her talk at a church meeting and was impressed by her comments. She and his wife belonged to the same book club, which met at the Milton house. He knew Townsend's husband, Ted, had died of prostate cancer about 18 months earlier.

"He said, 'I have two tickets and don't want to go alone,' " Townsend recalls. Thinking she was being supportive of a new widower, she went and had a great time. They spent a lot of time together that summer, hiking, camping, listening to music and taking dancing lessons. He memorized the words to "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and other favorite songs or hers.

When she went to Eastern Europe for three weeks, "I missed her," recalls the chemical engineer. "I just fell in love." Within three months, he was thinking of marriage. "I hadn't expected to fall in love. I knew intellectually I wanted to get married, but at my age, I didn't know if that was going to happen."

They talked about marriage but worried about their children's reaction. His son and one daughter were supportive, but the other daughter thought maybe her father's desire to remarry meant her parents' marriage hadn't been as idyllic as she thought. It's just the opposite, Clare Milton explains. "It's because it was nice," he says of his first marriage that he wanted to remarry. His daughter came around and supported their marriage.

As for Townsend, she thought it was too soon after his wife's death to get married. She hadn't thought about romance after her husband died. She'd been happily married for 45 years and had a job as director of the COIL Southwest Senior Center in Baltimore.

He sent her flowers and notes explaining why he wanted to marry. She made a tape of Robert Frost poems for him to listen to on a road trip. Her three children encouraged her to marry. They signed a prenuptial agreement protecting each of their estates, and she opted to keep her name.

They married in May 1996, 13 months after Chloe Milton's death. She was 67, he was 77. "I feel fortunate," she says. "I'm glad I have someone to share every day with, whatever it brings."

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