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Courting in the third age

Active seniors involved in later life dating are re-writing the rules of romance.

The last time Margaret enjoyed a night out with a relative stranger, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had just been released at the movies, Concorde was conducting its first test flight in France and President Nixon was in the process of withdrawing 25,000 troops from Vietnam.

But while Concorde was retired and Nixon replaced, her last first date in 1969 was undoubtedly a success for Margaret resulting in a binding 40-year union that produced three children and five grandchildren.

But in 2016 the 66-year-old, whose husband passed in 2012, was again a bundle of nerves as she steadied herself to climb back on the horse – with another potential suitor.

Enduring a traumatic few years, the result of which saw her bury a husband, a father and a cherished pet within a short space of time, Margaret says loneliness drove her decision to end her grieving and make more of an effort socially.

“You are married for all those years. You’ve got company and someone that comes home every day and all of a sudden there’s nobody. I did get lonely. [But then when I was invited out] I felt very anxious and thought ‘hell, it was last century when I was last in this position’. I didn’t know what was expected of me,” she says. 

Yet while throwing herself back into the dating pool may have been a relatively new experience for Margaret, the number of online dating sites specifically targeting the senior market suggest later life dating is anything but a new phenomenon among her peers.

Claiming ‘older adults’ are the fastest-growing demographic using their services, there has been a proliferation of niche dating sites that have sprung up in Australia including DatingOver60s, SilverSingles and SeniorDatingAu.

Likewise, more generalised online dating sites such as eHarmony and RSVP have also launched ‘senior-specific’ divisions in recent times with the latter claiming older adults aged between 50 and 91 comprise 22 percent of its membership – up from 18 percent just two years earlier.”

The facts

Frustrated by the lack of studies into the initiation and progression of late-life romantic relationships within an Australian context, National Ageing Research Institute research fellow Dr Sue Malta investigated the dating and relationship practices of older Australian hetrosexual adults aged between 60 and 92 for her 2013 thesis ‘Love, sex and intimacy in new late-life romantic relationships’.

The research conducted by Dr Malta – who has a PhD in Social Research (Sociology), a Bachelor of Arts (Honours, Community & Industry) and an undergraduate degree in Social Science (Psychology) – found those who had met their partners through dating websites went online because they felt there were very limited places and opportunities to meet like-minded others and because they no longer took part in the pub and club scene.

Apart from a dearth of available partners in their social or friendship groups, her studies showed it is also hard for older adults to work out who is actually available.

Just because someone was single, widowed or divorced, did not mean they were interested in dating.

University of New South Wales Professor Bianca Fileborn, also a research fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, has been involved in two national Australian research projects on sexuality and ageing, the second of which – was called ‘Sex, Age & Me’ and was the first national Australian project to examine older people’s sexual health and wellbeing.

“We both wanted someone to holiday with, spend time with and have a relationship with. And this is what we’ve done.”

Professor Fileborn says while there is sufficient evidence to show older Australians are embracing online dating, her research showed that participants’ views and experiences of online dating were more mixed. While some participants had really embraced it, others had encountered more negative experiences, she said.

Some of the women interviewed said that all of the men their own age would post photos of themselves when they were much younger, and that many were looking for a partner much younger than themselves, she says.

“Women also found that men wanted ‘another wife’ who would take care of them, do all of the domestic chores around the house etc, whereas women wanted relationships based on equality.”

Some participants also thought that online dating was embarrassing, or something that you only did if you couldn’t meet a partner in ‘real life’, so there was still some stigma surrounding online dating.

These participants tended to want to meet partners in ‘real life’ situations, such as through friends or social groups,” she says.

Others wishing to start dating again faced other challenges such as ageist responses from family members if they announced they were dating or looking for a new partner.

“Younger family members thought it was ‘gross’ or ‘inappropriate’ and didn’t want to know about it,” Professor Fileborn says.

An anxious start

Having decided very early on not to go down the online dating route – “I was very wary about meeting somebody I didn’t know” – Margaret took a laissez faire approach to meeting a potential companion undertaking holidays with family, catching up with friends and playing lawn bowls.

It was through the bowling club she met her second suitor, with the pair agreeing to get to know each other better over a dinner date. Understandably anxious, Margaret says she sought out her granddaughter for advice on how she should act on the date.

“She told me just to relax and be myself, but the first date I was a bit nervous and so was he and we didn’t relax at all. By the second date we weren’t quite as wound up and began to really enjoy ourselves.”

Eighteen months and several dozen dates later and the pair are now in a committed relationship. Yet despite being in an enduring romance which sees them travel together and attend social events as a couple, they still lead separate lives.

“We said right from the start we didn’t want to get married and we both wanted to live apart. We both wanted someone to holiday with, spend time with and have a relationship with. And this is what we’ve done.”

But Dr Malta says Margaret’s situation is far from unusual among later life daters.

Her research found that while older adults in her studies found new partnerships that were “meaningful, important and sexually intimate” – unlike when dating in their younger years – very few progressed to cohabitation or marriage with most of the older adults preferring to date or live separately.

Her research showed that love and intimacy continue to be of vital importance in later life, as do ‘pure’-type relationships based on emotional and sexual equality, as well as an ongoing need for autonomy, most likely in order to avoid providing care giving and instrumental support.

Known in Europe as living apart together (LAT), Dr Malta says this phenomenon is only now coming to the attention of the Australian research community. She believes it now embodies the changing face of traditional Australian families.

“The findings indicate that these older adults were looking for and finding egalitarian ‘pure-type’ relationships based on emotional and sexual equality but not necessarily based on cohabitation or monogamy.

[There is] evidence that the past and present orthodoxies of family life and personal life are deeply entwined – and that older adults favour LAT relationships because they preserve both their individual interests and that of their families. In so doing, they represent a new family form within Australian society.”

Original article from Chapter Magazine.

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