Pensioner Passion

4th February 2011

As St Valentine’s Day approaches Heather Harris
looks at the joys and pitfalls of finding love in later life

“Is anyone sitting there?” isn’t the most original chat-up line but it made my 82 year old, widowed mother-in-law blush in a Rickmansworth coffee shop one wet Saturday.

“No-one has said that to me for 60 years!” she said later, admitting that she did indeed end up having a nice giggle with the “elderly gentleman” who’d posed the question.

According to national charity Age UK, looking for love in later life is no longer the social taboo it once was. As their spokeswoman explained, “With the health of the nation improving, older people are not content to sit at home on their own just because they have been bereaved or divorced.”

Bob Jenkinson, 75, couldn’t agree more. He was married for 40 years before his wife died of cancer. “I’ve had a couple of relationships since, and find it quite easy to meet new people,” he said, while also acknowledging some feelings of guilt over the memory of his marriage. “I really believe in intimacy and in the joy of meeting someone you are compatible with, and I’m not ready to give up on that just yet”.

GPs, amongst others, are particularly delighted. Latest figures show that over a quarter of men and women aged 65+ who are living alone are hit by depression. And the best cure isn’t medicines or pills but a jab with cupid’s arrow.

My own mother is living proof. Having been left suddenly by my father, aged 75, she suffered from one illness after another. Until Eric came into her life. “There is a big age gap,” she confessed, after finally plucking up the courage to tell me about Eric’s existence. As I mentally prepared for a young, tanned, medallion-wearing, Greek waiter to be joining us for Christmas dinner, I heard her adding, “He’s a lot older than me!!”

Thirteen years older, to be precise... and they’re wonderful together. ‘Dates’ consist of coach tours to the seaside, afternoons spent in the cinema or in front of the television, wallowing in their shared passion for Midsomer Murders. Two stone lighter, and with a spring in her step, my Mum admits that it’s not all ‘hearts and roses’. “It’s more about companionship, having someone who forces you to get up and try new things rather than sitting on your own”…

In their case, she’s converted Eric to watching Leicester City FC, and he’s turned her into a Strictly Come Dancing aficionado.

They met through Eric’s wife, Josephine, a long-standing friend of my mother’s until her death from cancer three years ago. That’s not an uncommon pattern, apparently. “We do find that new love for the over sixties often comes from a shared experience of bereavement,” a spokeswoman from Relate explained.

Margaret Boone first met her current husband, Bernie, when he was just 21 and she was 11 years older. “He was married to my sister,” she tells me. But at just 28 years old, Margaret’s sister, Anne, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Naturally the illness changed their family life dramatically over the next 30 years.

“I was happily married with four children, but we all became very close as Anne deteriorated. There was a lot of sadness but also a lot of laughter.”

Margaret’s own husband died suddenly aged 62, followed two years later by Anne, at 58.

“We had always been more than brother- and sister-in-law and when we both found ourselves on our own it made practical sense for me to sell my big house and to buy into his bungalow.”

For the next two years, they lived together as friends until, as Margaret put it, “One thing led to another”. He proposed during a trip to America and they married on 25 April 1997 – taking 28 of their family on honeymoon with them. Margaret did admit, though, that one of her daughters had found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that she could love someone other than her Dad.

Such tricky family feelings are highlighted by Relationship and Sex Therapist, Jean Hateley, writing in Mature Times newspaper.

“Some family members will be delighted,” she says, “especially if it means they no longer feel responsible for keeping you entertained. Others may have difficulty coming to terms with the fact that the way things have been for a long time is about to change.”

It’s not all concern for the emotional well-being either, as Hately continues. “Offspring may be concerned that their anticipated inheritance is going to be frittered away, or that you are being taken advantage of and will be swindled out of your savings”.

One way around this is to keep family life and romantic relationships totally separate, as 63 year-old Marie Turner does. Her husband died ten years ago, and for the last seven years she has been in a relationship with an “intellectually stimulating” gentleman whom she sees twice a week.

“After being on my own for three years, I felt ready to meet someone so my life wasn’t all about family, family, family. This arrangement suits me, as I can still see my children and grandchildren but also have a life of my own.”

Marie knows exactly where she wants the boundaries to remain. “My children have met my new partner, but I don’t think they actually like him as he is so different to their father. I would hate to get married again or even to live with him. I know he wants more but this is enough for me…”

Clearly, angst over romance and relationships is not the proviso of door-slamming teenagers. One look at SAGA Zone, the relationship forum on the SAGA website, shows that the last things on their members’ minds are pipes, slippers and Lark Rise to Candleford. As one contributor explains, “People assume that chat rooms are just for youngsters, but we discuss all sorts of subjects including the classic dilemma of just where to meet Mr or Mrs Right…”

According to a recent Sunday Telegraph report, there are currently over seven million people using internet dating sites in the UK – and the over 55s are the highest proportion.

“On-line dating sites for the over 60s are on the increase and are ideal for people who are too shy to go out and socialise on their own,” said the Age UK spokeswoman, pointing out that many niche websites have popped up specifically to target an older demographic. The Senior Dating Agency and Senior Dating Group are both aimed at over-50s, while Singlesover60.co.uk and Online Senior Dates focus on a slightly higher age bracket, with the majority of their 35,000 plus members over 60.

With romance for silver surfers just a click away, it’s hardly surprising that SAGA also report that 69% of the over 50s will be sending Valentines Cards. They may not be leaping off high buildings with a box of Black Magic to deliver them, but I think it’s wonderful news… after all, as they say: you’re only as old as the partner you feel…

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