Recently, I received a question from a reader whose mother, in her late 70s, is in love with a man who just turned 80. The reader wondered what I thought about this situation, because she frankly, as she put it, found it “creepy.”
While I am aware that readers on this site have had some issues with inappropriate sexual behavior when an elder has dementia - something quite common, actually, and often very hard to cope with - this woman’s question was about her mother and her mother’s gentleman friend, neither of whom show any signs of dementia. She wondered if this couple should or should not “be allowed” to act on their love and sexual needs.
As with nearly any subject, there are variations and exceptions. Some 80-year-olds are very sharp mentally and physically, and should be allowed to make their own decisions, even if that means whether they choose to marry. Others, of course, are compromised, and their adult children have a reason to worry. However, since dementia or any other cognitive issues don’t seem to be a problem for this elderly couple, this was my answer:
"Most people have a hard time thinking of their parents and other elders as sexual beings. One of the many forms of ageism, and denial on some level, in our society is that primarily beautiful young people fall in love or are sexual.
"Of course that is a false concept. Ageism is cultural, and only when popular culture begins to portray more elders as being in love will this change. I think there is a movement in this direction, as evidenced by all the sexual dysfunction ads on TV, and even some older folks in movies. However, young people still seem to err on the side that elders can’t be sexual and in love. So, there is still a long way to go.
"Love and sex are needs for most people, throughout life, and families should learn to be open to this fact. If an elder wants to be part of a loving union, why should the family automatically pick up a negative vibe from that?
"Unless there is diagnosed dementia where an elder cannot make informed decisions, elders shouldn’t be held back from love by family discord and ageism. As for marriage, that is more debatable, because practical complexities can arise, but again, if the people are not cognitively compromised, they should be able to make an informed decision. I’ve heard some older people say they’d like a commitment ceremony, but not a legal marriage, because one of the couple has a disease that could put him or her in a nursing home. These people don’t want to affect the other’s finances negatively. This idea can be a valid concern, depending on the couple’s circumstances. Therefore, each couple needs to look at the pros and cons of a legal union.
"Aside from questions of a legal union - and I caution elders against bowing to adult children trying to keep a couple from marrying strictly because of inheritance issues - I see no reason why age alone should prevent a couple from marrying, if that is their desire.
“A will can be written to include adult children or grandchildren. Legal measures can be taken to make sure that money from a deceased parent goes to the children of that parent, if that is the surviving elder’s desire. Please wish your mother well in this relationship. Everyone deserves love if they can find it, no matter what their age.”
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.