Cover

Old flames

As Canada greys, older people are nixing the notion that love—and lovemaking— are for the young

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER August 12 2002
Cover

Old flames

As Canada greys, older people are nixing the notion that love—and lovemaking— are for the young

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER August 12 2002

THERE’S A SHORTAGE of men at the Brock House afternoon tea dance, so Margaret Mager sits this one out. Swaying sensuously on the edge of her chair, the 82-year-old widow keeps time to the rhythms of Stardust while three dozen dancers, most of them octogenarians, swish and twirl around the sun-filled ballroom. Mager nods towards a grinning man manoeuvring a heavy, swollen-footed partner across the parquet in this mansion-turned-seniors’-centre in Vancouver’s tony West Point Grey neighbourhood. “He had a slight stroke last week,” she says. “And Warwick Bluck’s knees are gone, but he gets up.” An arthritic joint here, a walker and hearing aids over there—the ailments seem out of sync with the flushed cheeks and flirty eyes. “We all have health problems,” says Mager, a legally blind diabetic. Then, under her breath, “I’m still sexual.” She rises into the arms of her next dance partner, and John Barwick takes a seat. “When I come to these dances,” says the 74-year-old widower, wearing a conservative grey suit and a knowing look, “I’m trawling.”

Seniors “trawling?” For romantic partners, even sex? Absolutely. The genteel two-steppers at Brock House, like a growing contingent of elderly people, are quietly shaking off the rickety old notion that love—and lovemaking—are for the young. Older singles are hooking up in all the old familiar places: at dances and bridge clubs, on cruises and bus trips, and in the hundreds of seniors’ centres and retirement communities across the country. They are also logging onto the Internet, posting personal ads and signing up with dating agencies in their search for a companion.

The pool of eligibles is expanding now that the seniors’ population is one of the fastest growing segments of society. In the past decade, the number of Canadians over 80 jumped 41 per cent to 932,000. The entire 65-and-over complement climbed to 3.9 million. But aging isn’t what it used to be—70, it seems, is the new 50. “People think of themselves as younger— and with good reason,” says New Yorker Dr. Robert Butler, co-author of the bestselling book The New Love and Sex after 60 and originator of the term “ageism.” “We are seeing an increasingly healthy and robust population of 65-plus.” Thunder Bay, Ont. gerontology researcher Lee Stones— co-author, with her gerontologist husband, Michael, of Sex May Be Wasted on the Young—notes that only five per cent of Canadians over 65 are in long-term care facilities. “A very small number are really sick. Over the hill is a myth; there is no hill.” Today’s pensioners may accept seniors’ discounts, but many balk at the S-word itself. “I’m a very active old geezer,” says Louis Smith, a 79-year-old Torontonian. “I’m too physically young to be a senior.” The retired engineer joined a seniors’ centre to look for company after his first wife died in July, 1999. Eight months later, convinced that trying to court elderly women across a bridge table was a dead end, he registered with a Toronto matchmaker. “I am accustomed to being married—I wanted companionship, somebody to travel with,” says Smith. “But there just wasn’t a good forum for meeting people.” Smith’s phone began to ring off the hook. The agency had matched him with 23 women; he met 22 of them in a pleasant but unsuccessful round of coffee and dinner dates. “A lot of women don’t want a 76-year-old,” says Smith. “They worry they’ll be looking after you the rest of their lives.” He nearly gave up. But the last call came from teacher Zena, now 63. Once again, Smith is a happily married man.

Vital, energetic elders no longer view loneliness as an unavoidable part of aging. “If you don’t have somebody to love, you may as well call it quits,” says Bob Wain, one of the sharply rising number of elderly people who have been divorced (his second marriage ended when his wife died). The New Westminster, B.C., pensioner found his third wife, Helen, now 85, at a community social in 1996 and, a year later, whisked her off to Hawaii. “We got married on the beach just before dusk,” says Wain, 89. “We had music, leis and a photographer—the whole bit.”

But many old folks have great difficulty finding Mr. or Mrs. Right Sr. Demographics are especially cruel to older widows. While roughly 22 per cent of widowed men over 65 remarry within five years, only six per cent of their female counterparts become brides again, according to one estimate. Not surprising, given that men tend to marry younger women who usually go on to outlive them. Although senior men are closing the gap, there are only three men for every four women aged 65 and over. At 85, women outnumber men more than two to one. In the competition for a dwindling number of prospects, some females try creative tactics. “So many women go to funerals, and they are on the hunt,” says one Winnipeg matron. “I see all these women chasing men.” Certain aging coquettes choose clothes to conquer. “I dress for men,” says Vancouverite “Sylvia,” 67, who’s convinced that “Jack,” the 78-year-old man in her life, stopped scanning the personals because he found her sexy. “I wear really short skirts. I get away from that primpy, crimpy perm all the other women have.” 

Older men, meanwhile, are at a premium wherever seniors gather. “They get treated like kings,” says Gwen Austen, administrator of Vancouver’s Brock House Society. “There is a lot of batting of eyelashes going on.” If the guy can dance, he’s especially prized. And, says New Westminster, B.C. divorcee and comedian Mavis Pickett, 70, “That joke is very, very true: ‘Oh, he’s a hot one—he can drive at night.’” Some men are flattered by the attention. “I didn’t do well in high school,” says Brock House habitué Barwick. “There was nothing more ruthless than the bobby soxers. One or two guys got the girls and the rest of us were wallflowers. But now I have a second chance.” The imbalance keeps Herbert Clasby, 74, busy at gatherings of a Victoria social group called People Meeting People. “I sometimes sit with six ladies,” says the septuagenarian. “I have to keep them all happy dancing.”

The pressure annoys other men. Norman Kennedy, an 82-year-old Vancouver widower, had to fend off a matchmaker at one dance. “We had a lot of good weddings last year,” she told the handsome widower. “Maybe we can fix you up.” The soft-spoken Kennedy made it very clear: “No, no, I’m not interested,” he replied. “I had a good marriage for 54 years. All I want is a dancing partner.” 

Once older people connect, they still find themselves on the ages-old gender battlefield. Like their younger counterparts, elderly men, it seems, are from Mars and senior women from Venus. Senior fellows, for example, still tend to like compliant women, but older females are often more free-spirited than they’ve ever been. And apart from The Golden Girls reruns, late-life lovers have few role models. Renowned British author Doris Lessing explores the subject in her recent novel Love, Again, about a 65-year-old who questions the appropriateness of erotic love with a much younger man. Australian director Paul Cox took a forgettable look at it in Innocence, a recent, maudlin movie about two lovers in their 70s. Perhaps a more realistic treatment of the issue appeared in Lynn Johnston’s For Better Or For Worse comic strip in May. “Living separately is more romantic,” says the cartoon Grandpa, explaining why he and his girlfriend decided not to marry. “I never see her plucking her chin hairs and she never sees me without my teeth.”

HE WAS A retired Vancouver banker, 62, whose wife had long ago lost interest in sex. She was a 62-year-old widow whose husband had died 15 years earlier. “It was his move, not mine, that started it all,” she says of their 20-year affair. She and her lover both worked as volunteers at a seniors’ centre. Their romance began with furtive foreplay in the croquet house. “He’d be hugging me and kissing me,” says the vivacious mother of six and grandmother of 18, now in her early 80s. “I was a long time without a partner. I’m a very sexual person, and he awakened that in me. And he needed it so much.” The couple met at her home a couple of times a week, often after playing croquet. “When somebody comes along and you get another chance—why not?” she says. “It didn’t hurt anybody. And we were very much in love.

“But I don’t think I would have married him. I had got used to being alone. And he had that old-fashioned idea that you never left your wife.” In fact, the man’s wife knew about the liaison and tolerated it. The affair is over now—ended by his Alzheimer’s. “It’s difficult not to be around him,” says the woman. She keeps in touch by telephone, but never knows if he’ll confuse her with his wife or remember who she is.

LOVE IN THE golden years? OK. But shouldn’t elderly sweethearts stick to holding hands? Our youth-obsessed society presumes—or maybe hopes—that the sex drive disappears after middle age. “Some people’s idea of sex with older people is, ‘Phew—these old people with wrinkled bodies, what are they doing, wanting to be married again, fiddling around in bed?’ ” observes Victoria divorcee Vi Russell, 67. A mention of seniors and sexuality typically conjures up Viagra jokes. But while the drug—and other treatments—have helped lengthen some seniors’ prime time, there’s a greater need to rejuvenate outmoded cultural attitudes. “The myth is that if you are over 60, you are a dried-up old prune and you don’t do it,” says author Stones. “Of course, you do it.”

But the myth of seniors’ celibacy inhibits some from rejoining the mating game. The idea of going on a date—with the inherent expectation it could lead to romance—embarrasses many seniors, says Bellingham, Wash, sociologist Kris Bulcroft, one of the few experts to have studied seniors’ dating patterns. “It’s sort of an underground activity. There’s a covert side to it all because they’re afraid society won’t accept it.” One elderly woman, who liked staying overnight with her boyfriend, told Bulcroft she would take her portable phone to his neighbouring apartment in case her daughter called.

Only recently has the burgeoning gerontology industry—focused mainly on the ill and frail—begun to pay attention to seniors’ sexuality. With romances happening at ever older ages, seniors’ facilities are facing new demands from residents who want double beds and privacy. “We don’t know much about any aspect of 90-year-olds’ social life because we never had a huge group of 90-year-olds,” says Paula David, a social worker and gerontology teacher at Ryerson University in Toronto who published one of the first Canadian articles on sexuality in elderly females earlier this year. In her paper, David reports on the attitudes and experiences of a discussion group that included some 50 women living in a seniors’ apartment building. Her findings? “Intimacy and sexuality never lose importance—ever. Eighty- and 90-year-olds still see themselves as sexual creatures. They are a horny, lusty crowd; not hormonally necessarily, but in the perception of themselves. It is terrible that we put them on the shelf.”

In the discussion group—at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, where David is on staff—one woman announced that her granddaughter had given her a vibrator for her 90th birthday. Recalls David: “She said, ‘It’s the best present I’ve ever received. It changed my life and made me much more content.’ All the other ladies went, ‘What’s a vibrator?’ They were completely taken aback, and then one of them said, ‘Oh you mean for pleasuring yourself?’ I’ve got some really prudey ladies here, but they all knew what masturbation was.”

More than 85 cent of the 80 people in a study conducted by sociologist Bulcroft said they were sexually active with their dating partners. “That doesn’t mean that every time they went out on a date they were having sex,” she explains. Many seniors, Bulcroft notes, value touching and holding as much as the act of sexual intercourse. In the age of AIDS, there is a certain wariness.

“Hey, there are so many diseases out there,” says Don McTavish, a tall, dashing, 67-year-old armed forces veteran living in Victoria. “I like to know who I’m going to bed with.” Most senior women, he claims, make willing partners. Barwick agrees: “If you are loyal, you can get enough—as much as you can handle at my age.” But he isn’t one to go for a younger partner. “I want someone who knows the score, somebody I have something in common with intellectually. I don’t want to be popping Viagra to keep one of these high-powered young things going. I don’t want to die of a heart attack.” Some elderly people, including Brock House regular Mager, believe sex is better later on. “You have nothing to worry about. You are not going to have a child or be tied down.” Although they came of age well before the ’60s, the sexual revolution seems to have touched many seniors, particularly women who had been taught to ignore their own pleasure. “Women don’t mind letting you know if you’re doing something wrong,” says the twice-divorced McTavish.

IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT at the Esquimalt Legion. British Columbia’s West Coast and Okanagan Valley are big retirement centres, and the Victoria area—of which Esquimalt is part—has one of the country’s most elderly populations. The Legion, meanwhile, is a hot spot for oldies. Tonight the dance floor is packed as Brandy, a.k.a. Bill Zaalberg, Sr., a self-styled one-man band, keeps the crowd hopping as he belts out In the Mood on his trumpet. “There is quite a bit of romancing,” says the 58-year-old musician between sets. “I see it all the time from up here.” He scans the sea of red-checkered tables and points to recent love matches, including a pair of newlyweds in their 80s. At a nearby table, McTavish talks about all the amorous intrigue that plays out at the Legion—“It’s a real Peyton Place.” While his current girlfriend, a blond, pony-tailed 63-year-old who could easily pass for 50, shimmies to Shake, Rattle and Roll in a dance contest, he moans about the vagaries of the seniors’ dating scene.

“I’m really enjoying my senior years and playing the field,” he says. “But dating is a hassle because women now think of themselves as equal. Of course, they are equal. But women want to date the way they did 50 years ago and have today’s perks. They don't like to cook anymore. They want the man to do the cooking or go to fast food outlets. They are so terribly independent now. They don’t have to take crap from anybody. But why do women in my age group think if somebody asks them out they should be able to leave their wallets at home?”

Older women’s increased independence often translates into a reluctance to marry. Elderly men tend to be more interested in matrimony than women. “I believe in the organization,” says McTavish. “Once you’re married, life is relatively smooth.” But many of them, having attained financial security, and caught up in the backwash of the feminism their daughters and granddaughters have championed, are happy to live by themselves and stay single—even as they yearn for romance. Those who nursed a spouse through a long illness are particularly averse to becoming caretakers again. “I’ve always needed a man in my life,“ says Winnipegger Edith Dyker, 85. But the twice-married widow has turned down two marriage proposals in the past three years. “I’ve been there and done that,” she says. Another Winnipeg widow, 79-year-old June Johnson, is of the same mind—“I don’t know whether I would want to wash somebody’s socks and underwear again.”

One B.C. septuagenarian believes she has the perfect alternative to marriage— she dates a gay man. “It works beautifully,” says the former teacher, who wants to remain anonymous to protect her in-the-closet man. Close friends, the couple enjoy frequent dinners and theatre dates. It’s an arrangement she recommends. “Gays don’t want to move in and they don’t want you to look after them,” she says. “They don’t hit on you.”

Old age can be lonely for senior gays and lesbians—a generation who came of age before gay pride. “I’ve never been in a relationship with another man,” says the retired teacher’s companion, still struggling with the discrimination he endured in a small Alberta town before he moved to the coast a few years ago. He likes the cover of a male-female relationship. “I live in a seniors’ building and I wouldn’t dare come out,” he says. “It wouldn’t be safe. The community is intolerant—that’s the way they grew up. Give it 20 years— there will be gay seniors’ housing.”

SURROUNDED BY FAMILY, a few friends and nursing staff, widow Eileen McGregor and widower Ross Thomas, 73 and 76, exchanged vows in March in the sunroom of the chronic care ward of a Toronto hospital. Thomas, who was being treated for complications following triple-bypass surgery (he returned home last week), wore pyjamas and a robe for the 15-minute ceremony. The two had been living together for 10 years, despite having grown up in an era when society frowned upon common-law unions. “Oh, you would be an outcast,” Thomas says. But the couple, encouraged by their children, put aside their misgivings and moved in together. Thomas proposed a decade ago, but McGregor would have lost her spousal benefit from her late husband’s workplace pension if she’d accepted. Last year, after the employer’s rules changed, they became engaged. But their plans to wed last July dissolved when Thomas underwent surgery. After several months of hospitalization, “Ross said, ‘To heck with this, let’s get married anyway,”’ recalls McGregor. “The day we got married and I walked down the corridor with Ross, I don’t think I felt so content in all my life.”

For elders who find love and perhaps marriage, the winter years can be a time of great comfort and joy—if the union is a workable one. Serious health problems proved to retired fire chief Len Herder, 80, what countless studies on the physical and emotional benefits of marriage have suggested. “It is healthier,” the Sechelt, B.C. resident says of his 10-year union with Margaret, 77. “I was in the hospital a couple of times. Marg was there all the time, worrying, looking after me. It was wonderful; that’s what kept me going.” 

But older lovebirds often have to deal with the objections of their adult children. Money—the loss of pensions or questions of property and inheritance—keeps couples apart, or causes familial rifts. Increasingly, nursing home administrators find themselves caught between their amorous elderly charges and angry offspring who expect their parents to stay out of other patients’ beds. It’s a touchy subject that cuts to the core of children’s grief and loyalty to the deceased parent, and pits those feelings against the needs of the surviving spouse. “Marg feels she was resented,” says Herder, who remarried within a year of his first wife’s death. He admits he aggravated the situation by inviting only one of his six children to the wedding. “I was lonely, I wanted to get it over with,” he recalls of the small ceremony, arranged on short notice. His children accept the marriage now, he adds. “They know I’m a stubborn cuss.”

When Lorna O’Brien and Currie McMillan, newlywed octogenarians from Winnipeg, announced they were getting married in April, O’Brien’s daughters were tearful before offering congratulations. O’Brien now lauds their reaction to her new husband. “They are terribly nice to him, but they don’t want him to usurp the place of their father,” she says. At the same time, she adds, her marriage has relieved them of some responsibility. “This isn’t why they said ‘Go for it,’ but this does take an awful lot of pressure off them. We are terribly close, but they don’t have time to phone me every day. They don’t have to do all those tending things.” But some people outside their families and circle of friends probed—and provoked—O’Brien and McMillan. “One lady looked me in the eye and said, ‘Why?’ ” says O’Brien. “People like to tell little jokes—‘How many children are you going to have?’ ” Despite those aggravations, the two are thrilled to have found each other. “We are both in good health and hope we have a few good years left,” says O’Brien. “Is this not lucky?”

MOST WEDNESDAY afternoons, without fail, Roger Kerkham, the 96-year-old DJ at the Brock House tea dance, plays Auld Lang Syne, a signal that the dance is about to end. The sentimental ritual irritates some cranky seniors. Others understand it as a healthy reminder to enjoy music while it plays. “You never know,” says regular Marion Garrick, 85. “Next week one of us may not be here.” Until then, whether the elderly romantics have a partner or not, there is the happy consolation of friendship, and the waltz of life itself. **