Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Young Love, Old Love

We talk here all the time about young people and sex. But older people have their issues, too.

Recently I was talking with a European friend, a lady of approximately my age; her kids are grown up, she and her husband are starting to think about retirement. She made a comment about a man we both know, and I playfully asked her if she was thinking of having an affair with him. She looked at me for a minute, not because she didn't know the answer, but because she wasn't sure how much to tell me.

"Sure," she finally said, matter-of-factly.

"What if your husband found out?" I asked.

She sort of smiled. "He won't find out." I believe she has thought this through, there was a kind of deliberate confidence in her voice.

"Well," I said, "What if he was having an affair? How would you like that?"

Again, she paused, not because she didn't know the answer, but because she wasn't sure how much to confide in me. She said, "If we were young, I'd kill him. But now," she shrugged and smiled conspiratorially, "Life's short, he should have fun."

I understand that this is not a common American attitude, at least out loud. We expect abstinence in youth and fidelity throughout adulthood till death. But it seems that the white-knuckle "traditional marriage" is not especially traditional, except maybe in the United States since the Industrial Revolution. Most cultures find a way to allow some romantic excitement in mature life, even if it calls for a wink and looking the other way.

It's not always a joke, not always fun and games, dirty old men and nasty grannies. Sometimes, especially in extreme old age, there is a poignance to love that cannot exist in less vulnerable individuals.

You may have seen this eye-opening article in the New York Times this week about Sandra Day O'Connor and her husband.
SO this, in the end, is what love is.

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, has a romance with another woman, and the former justice is thrilled — even visits with the new couple while they hold hands on the porch swing — because it is a relief to see her husband of 55 years so content.

What culture tells us about love is generally young love. Songs and movies and literature show us the rapture and the betrayal, the breathlessness and the tears. The O’Connors’ story, reported by the couple’s son in an interview with a television station in Arizona, where Mr. O’Connor lives in an assisted-living center, opened a window onto what might be called, for comparison’s sake, old love.

Of course, it illuminated the relationships that often develop among Alzheimer’s patients — new attachments, some call them — and how the desire for intimacy persists even when dementia steals so much else. But in the description of Justice O’Connor’s reaction, the story revealed a poignancy and a richness to love in the later years, providing a rare model at a time when people are living longer, and loving longer.

“This is right up there in terms of the cutting-edge ethical and cultural issues of late life love,” said Thomas R. Cole, director of the McGovern Center for Health, Humanities and the Human Spirit at the University of Texas, and author of a cultural history of aging. “We need moral exemplars, not to slavishly imitate, but to help us identify ways of being in love when you’re older.” Love in the Time of Dementia

The image of that is overpowering, isn't it? Her love for him is so strong that it makes her happy to see him with another woman. On the face of it, it's paradoxical, but beneath the surface I think anyone who had a heart could see that this is really true love, grown beyond selfishness.
That is beginning to change, Dr. Cole said, as life expectancy increases, and a generation more sexually liberated begins to age. Nursing homes are being forced to confront an increase in sexual activity.

And despite the stereotypes, researchers who study emotions across the life span say old love is in many ways more satisfying than young love — even as it is also more complex, as the O’Connors’ example shows.

“There’s a difference between love as it is presented in movies and music as this jazzy sexy thing that involves bikini underwear and what love actually turns out to be,” said the psychologist Mary Pipher, whose book “Another Country” looked at the emotional life of the elderly. “The really interesting script isn’t that people like to have sex. The really interesting script is what people are willing to put up with.”

“Young love is about wanting to be happy,” she said. “Old love is about wanting someone else to be happy.”

This NYT article is mainly about Alzheimer's patients, but it seems to me the deeper topic is love itself, the true nature of the happiness that can be found with another person.

We don't talk much about love and sex among older adults, but here comes the baby boom. You thought the Sixties were something -- wait till the Boomers are all in their sixties! And their seventies. And their eighties, sonny, you just wait. It's not a pretty thought, no, this isn't what you see in the movies, but older folks are going to to live and love with all their might, whatever that takes. They say love conquers all, it seems to me that love will conquer time, even.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"They say love conquers all, it seems to me that love will conquer time, even."

T-bone Burnett's wife, Leslie Philips had a song with lyrics that might be appropos here:

"When what you call love's really lust

God is watching you"

November 20, 2007 7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

November 20, 2007 8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's one for Thanksgiving:

"When you are old and gray
and bending by the fire
Take down a book
and dream of the look
you had once
and how you lost love's desire

How many loved your beauty
with love false not true
but ONE MAN loved
the pilgrim soul in you
and loved the sorrows
of your changing face

And murmur a little sadly
how you fled
when love paced upon the mountains overhead
and hid its face amid a crowd of stars"

November 20, 2007 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the biblical perspective, from Proverbs 5:15-21:

"Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.

Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?

Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,

a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love.

Why should you be intoxicated,
my son, with a forbidden woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?

For a man's ways are before the eyes of the Lord,
and he ponders all his paths."

November 20, 2007 10:04 AM  
Blogger Randi Schimnosky said...

Anonymous said "God is watching you".

Fraid not anonymous, god is a fictional character. A loving and just god that allows belief in him and his religion to be debatable and who eternally tortures people for innocently believing differently cannot exist anymore than a square circle can exist.

November 20, 2007 1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Fraid not anonymous, god is a fictional character."

Since you won't accept the Bible, here's a quote from a counter-cultural hero, Bob Dylan:

"Many try to stop me,
shake me up in my mind.

Saying 'Prove to me that He is Lord,
show me a sign.'

What kind of sign they need,
when it comes from within?

When what's lost has been found,
what's to come has already been."

In other words, Randi, don't kid yourself.

"A loving and just god that allows belief in him and his religion to be debatable"

There's no honest debate. Unbelief is a choice.

"and who eternally tortures people for innocently believing differently cannot exist anymore than a square circle can exist."

Your mistake is to think unbelief is innocent.

November 20, 2007 8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's another Dylan quote on unbelief for good measure:

"Now, there's spiritual warfare with flesh and blood breaking down.

You've either got faith or unbelief and there is no neutral ground.

The enemy is subtle but how are we so deceived,

when the truth's in our hearts

and we still don't believe?"

November 20, 2007 8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Are you a professional blogger? You spend so much time here that I am convinced you have no job (unless, like me, you are retired). Endless verbal vomit won't endear you to any intelligent reader. Are you being subsidized by one of those looney right-wing, anti-democratic "family" groups who hate everybody.

November 21, 2007 7:08 PM  
Blogger Randi Schimnosky said...

Anonymous said "There's no honest debate. Unbelief is a choice...Your mistake is to think unbelief is innocent.".

So, you think thoughts are crimes. Says a lot about you and your despicable religion.

If there was no honest debate everyone would be a Christian, yet the majority of the planet believes something else. As there is no evidence for your god its existence is highly, highly debatable. In fact the vast majority of scientists say there is no debate, there is no god.

The fact that many Christians say the buy-bull is the inerrant word of an omnisicient being when it is loaded with errors, contradictions, and ignorance proves the Christian god does not exist.

November 22, 2007 1:17 PM  
Blogger Randi Schimnosky said...

Worse yet anonymous thinks thoughts are crimes worthy of eternal punishment - no wonder his religion is slowly dying out.

November 22, 2007 1:18 PM  

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