Valentine's Day is for celebrating love, but the older people among us are often left out, an expert says.
Professor emeritus at Otago University Amanda Barusch says the elderly face several challenges when it comes to relationships. From handling the concerns of your adult children to overcoming the realities of our ageist society, Barusch has shared her tips with the Herald for Valentine's Day.
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Barusch says we need to avoid making assumptions about what older people want.
"Many people assume that older people are all the same, particularly when it comes to sex," she says.
"Some are looking for love, some are just looking for sex, and some are looking for 'none of the above.'"
The same applies to romance, she says - some want nothing to do with it, while others are desperate for intimacy.
"Internalised ageism is one of the biggest challenges," says Barusch.
"An older woman getting ready to go out on a date looks at herself in the mirror and focuses on stomach fat, wrinkles and grey hair, missing her sparkling eyes, her bright smile, and her impeccable taste. Likewise, an older man might obsess on his sparse hair and forget all about his great sense of humour. It's hard to drum up confidence when you're beating yourself up.
"It's even harder when your family and friends are – for reasons of their own – uncomfortable with your romantic goals. Of course they all want the best for you. They just don't want you to get hurt. There's not a lot of support for leaping into the unknown."
Finding a romantic partner
Barusch says people looking for love in their twilight years often have difficulty finding a romantic partner, especially in today's world of online dating.
"The internet is like a foreign country for many, so online resources either aren't available or may involve a big learning curve. The people who usually help with technology (grandchildren) may not be comfortable setting up their dating profiles. Apart from that, when you've been in a couple for most of your life it's hard to know where to go to meet people. There aren't many singles bars that cater to older adults."
Then there's dealing with ageing bodies.
"Sex is different in later life. Men may find that it's hard to achieve a full erection. Ejaculation may be less common and even less enjoyable. Women who haven't had sex for a while may experience vaginal atrophy, which causes discomfort during intercourse. These and related physical changes call on older adults to take creative approaches to physical intimacy," she says.
"Preventing sexually transmitted diseases is another logistical challenge for those who met their long-term partners before the HIV-AIDS epidemic."
For those who have lost a life partner already, it can be terrifying to open up to someone new, says Barusch.
"Some people also fear that they might be signing up for a new round of caregiving responsibilities. Dealing with insecurity and fear can be quite challenging," she says.
Your own kids
The judgements of others can pose challenges, and it can come from those closest to us, says Barusch.
"Friends and family may just want you to be safe and sometimes passion requires huge emotional vulnerability and risk.
"Your own adult children may be holding you back from finding love. They 'just want to protect mum' from being hurt because they can't imagine their mother in a passionate embrace with anyone not their father."
Peer pressure can affect even the oldest and wisest among us, she says.
"[Like] friends who claim, 'Sex? Don't you think we should be over that at our age?' Then there are the multiple subtle messages from media that tell us older adults aren't vital and attractive.
"So I'd say the greatest challenge for us is getting over the ageist messages that tell us love isn't 'appropriate' at our age."
Overcoming the challenges
The first step to overcoming these challenges is to call out ageism, says Barusch.
"I think it's up to people of all ages to recognise ageism and call it out when it rears its ugly head.
"When a little voice in your head says, 'That skirt is too short for a woman your age.' Or "What are you doing with a woman 12 years younger?"
Ageism comes from an oppressive value system that treats older people as second or third-class citizens, says Barusch.
"Then the next step is deciding whether you want to let those messages control you. If so, okay. Some of us just aren't fighters."
We might not be comfortable standing up to these norms, but it's time to develop an alternative narrative, says Barusch.
A good place to start is telling yourself "I deserve to be happy".