Recognizing Our Humanity
As children we look up to our parents, mimic their behavior, learn from them. For many, there is a sense of invincibility and consistency to their presence. A stroke or a fall later in life can startle us and remind us just how fragile we are. When our parents begin to age, a thin curtain is pulled back and we see them more and more as human beings with needs no different from our own. Yes they need food, shelter, and clothing, but they also need companionship, sex, purpose, independence, acceptance, and love.
There are many types of love in the world, maybe as many different kinds as there are people. We need the love of friends that know our old stories. We need the love of new relationships that challenge us to be better. We need the love that we trust to bear our burdens. We need the love that makes us feel understood and accepted. When an aging parent has a new love interest, it can be challenging to sift through the emotions and respond with a sense of understanding. The beginning of this understanding is in seeing the needs of a parent and recognizing their humanity in them.
Marriage After 70
We are living longer and longer and that longevity often translates into more and more years after the death of spouse or a divorce. For the generations living into those extra 20-30 years, the choice to continue to look for and find someone to share life with makes a lot of sense. With adult children spread out around the country, it is common for aging parents to live far from their family. After exiting their careers, the transition into retirement can be an isolating experience for some. A blossoming friendship based on a deep shared connection can be a real gift.
Remembering the Past. Living in the Present.
Whether your parent was divorced previously or suffered the death of a spouse, the thought of them getting married again can be uncomfortable and downright frightening. Moving on to another relationship can feel like forgetting the loved ones of the past. It is important to recognize that the decision to embark on a new relationship is an expression of present needs and a vision for the future and not an expression about the past. Many senior couples will speak freely about their past spouses that they miss dearly and who continue to be an important part of their life story.
Balancing Responsibility & Autonomy
Regardless of how old we are, we are always our parent’s children; however, as they age, millions of adult children are taking on the role of caregiver. When you are responsible for the safety, everyday care, and well-being of an aging parent it can be difficult to balance the seemingly parental role with respect for their own autonomy and personhood. While a decision to get re-married later in life may seem unnecessary, foolish, or spontaneous, it may be a crucial part of building the quality of life that they want for themselves. Having “the conversation” with your loved one about what they want for their life is usually logistic in nature including long-term care insurance, durable power of attorney, and end-of-life wishes, but it is equally important to include topics about what they want for their relationships, hobbies and passions, educational aspirations, etc. Building a care plan around an understanding of what they want for their life can bring balance and understanding to the relationship and decisions ahead.
The Taboo Topic of Sex
A big part of our humanity is our sexuality. Our culture tends to portray only the young as sexual beings and this is as misleading as the perfect photoshoped bodies that adorn magazine covers and billboard ads. Our bodies do change as we age, but our sexuality and need for intimacy remains a natural part of our personhood and an important part of our hierarchy of needs. While this may not be a part of every relationship, recognizing and legitimizing an aging adult’s desire to have a healthy sex life is crucial to honoring their humanity. For a sexually active senior it is also important that they are able to speak freely to geriatric professionals and physicians about their sexual health and needs. Many symptoms of chronic diseases or illness will have sexual expressions that are important red flags for proper diagnosis. Sex is also an important factor in looking at retirement or assisted living communities. During any kind of a move or change in home life it is important to take into account the need for privacy as well as safety. It is important for us to remember that a healthy sex life can be an important factor for remaining active, engaged with life, and connected to a loved one.
One of the biggest concerns adult children have about their parents remarrying is the thought of them being taken advantage of. Within the stereotype of “scammers” or “gold-diggers” is the fear that a relationship later in life could turn manipulative or harmful to our loved ones. It is not a bad thing to have a watchful eye toward your parent, but it is important to be logical and leave room for the possibility of a positive relationship. Here are a list of important questions that you should ask yourself when considering a parent’s new love relationship:
- How is my parent impacted? Do they seem more positive and happy? Are they negative or do they treat others differently?
- Is their new companion exhibiting manipulative behavior?
- How does the new companion speak about your parent?
- Are there any dramatic or sudden changes in finances, spending, and decision-making?
- Does your parent seem more secretive or private than is usual for them?
- Has your parent expressed their long-term care wishes including Power of Attorney? If so, ask how the new relationship might change their wishes or needs?
When observing and getting to know a new companion of a parent it is crucial to seek to understand and ask lots of questions before jumping to conclusions. Take time to develop your opinion and feel free to ask questions like, “How does this person make you feel dad?” or “What do you enjoy about the relationship mom?” You will inspire the trust and respect from your aging parent if you show trust, respect, and interest in their decisions. If you suspect that your parent may be in a toxic relationship or is being manipulated, you need to speak candidly to your aging loved one about your concerns. Laying a foundation of positive dialogue about the relationship will help give legitimacy to any concerns you may have later on.
When it comes to complicated family dynamics such as love later in life, concerned adult children, stubborn aging parents, etc., a Geriatric Care Manager can really be an asset to families. As an RN or MSW they specialize in the care of aging adults and can help families navigate the complicated issues that can arise. They are able to provide mediation and guide families through difficult discussions and equip them to make informed elder care decisions together. Whether you are planning for the future, or dealing with a crisis, Care Managers are able to take the helm to provide the advocacy, coordination, and the direct care an aging adult needs. It is important for aging adults to feel that they have a professional in their corner who they can trust and rely on to navigate potential awkward or private issues they encounter. This relieves family to just be family again. Help is a phone call away 800.628.7649.
For a beautiful example of a positive story of Love Later in Life, don’t miss this video from Alice Beckham, age 91.
Published on June 27, 2014.