No age limit on love

Clark County seniors say getting older doesn't mean romantic longing fades away, but relationship challenges remain

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

Published:

 

We’re older, day by day

Our society is getting grayer every day. “The Silver Tsunami” is a product of the post-WWII baby boom and our lengthening life spans.

The older population, those past 65, made up 13 percent of the country in 2010: 40 million people. By 2030, as baby boomers settle into old age, statistics indicate 20 percent of the United States will be in that age group.

People older than 85, an age that until recent decades was unreachable for most, will see their ranks increase drastically in the coming years. While there were only about 5.5 million people in the U.S. of that age and older counted in the 2010 census, in 2050 there could be about 19 million.

A third of those between 45 and 63 are unmarried, according to a census-based study published last year by Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research. That’s a more than 50 percent increase since 1980, when 20 percent were not married.

“The economic and health vulnerabilities of single boomers are concerning because boomers are now moving into old age when failing health becomes even more common and severe,” wrote NCFMR co-director and sociology professor Susan Brown in a report. “In the past, family members, particularly spouses, have provided care to infirm older adults. But a growing share of older adults aren’t going to have a spouse available to rely on for support.”

While there are millions of single seniors now, there are millions more rolling over the hill.

“We are all healthier longer, that’s both a blessing and a curse,” said Vancouver gerontologist Gail Haskett.

Love at any age

Just like the bright-eyed teen staring in the mirror, fastidiously moving a strand of hair until it’s in the exact right place, dating as a senior can be just as nerve-racking as it is steaming with potential.

“Whatever your age is, finding the person of your dreams has never been easy,” said Pepper Schwartz, University of Washington sociology professor and AARP’s national sex and relationship expert.

The 67-year-old author explored her own time as an unattached older woman in “Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years.” She’s now engaged to a man she met on a dating website, an increasingly common resource for senior singles.

For most, the need for companionship is just as strong when your skin is smooth as when it’s wrinkled.

“It’s really very critical at any age,” Schwartz said.

Finding a match well into your adult years brings its own set of daunting hurdles.

There might be emotional baggage, habits, health issues, children, a shrinking pool of wooers. As you age even more, there could be added concerns over body odor, incontinence, memory loss, fatigue, death.

Take the nervous feeling in your stomach after spotting a big zit on the tip of your nose on prom night and multiply it by a lifetime.

Despite the potential pitfalls of dating as a senior, Schwartz said there are positives too.

For one, it can be liberating to embrace the freedom of being single. Also, older people have most certainly learned a few things in their long lives; talents or knowledge that can intrigue a date. And after many decades, they probably know themselves well enough to radiate a confidence that might not have been there in their 20s.

When a person is young, sociologists say life tends to be about building — a family, a savings account, a healthy body. But in the later years, as life gets closer to its end than its beginning, the distractions of youth begin to fade away.

“We’re more planning for loss than gain,” said Gail Haskett, gerontologist and president of Aging Resources Inc. in Vancouver.

The drive then tends to focus around foundations, creating a stability to help ensure the senior years are fulfilling and worry free. Of course in the current economic climate, that’s not always the reality.

You're never too old to feel weak in the knees.

The butterflies in your belly. The extra dusting of make-up you put on in the morning. The unshakable smile stretching the limits of your face. These are the marks of new love. It can put a spring in your step whether you're 16 or 86.

Just ask Janice Veca.

Losing her first husband to divorce, and decades later her second to death, the 86-year-old thought she had aged past the point of romance, that a light within her had extinguished.

But last year, while living in Vancouver's Touchmark at Fairway Village retirement community, in the final chapter of her life, came an unforeseen — but blessed — twist.

It was 83-year-old Donald Van Rossen. He moved to Fairway Village after his wife died from cancer last March.

As he settled into a new life in his studio apartment, Veca caught his eye. In the next months, the pair would chat in the dining room and at the occasional bingo game. He a retired University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame swim coach, she a devoutly Christian former software engineer.

Then, Van Rossen hit her with a bomb. He said he couldn't get her out of his mind; that he had fallen head over heels.

Veca backed off as Van Rossen pushed on.

Online dating

While online dating isn’t for everyone, it has become a vital oasis for older adults not eager to hit up the local bar or wherever single people are found. Here are some of the most popular websites catering to the 50-and-older crowd. All offer free profiles and browsing as well as paid membership options.

• Our Time

• Senior Match

• AARP Dating

• Senior Friend Finder

Boomer Dating

"He kept asking me to marry him over and over and over," Veca said. "I wasn't interested in getting married again."

But Van Rossen's charm and persistence got the best of her. Love, as it tends to do, hit Veca like a ton of bricks.

Last Christmas she handed Van Rossen a note.

He read how they are blessed with love and joy; that she cared deeply for him. Following an arrow instructing him to flip over the card, Van Rossen read the back: "The answer is yes."

Life changes

Whether it's divorce, death or another significant life change that spurs a return to the dating world, it can be a monumental step.

It certainly was for 66-year-old Michael Fox-Lambert.

One morning 15 years ago his wife's heart valve gave out, killing her swiftly on what had been an average day.

Three years before that, his son also died unexpectedly, under tragic circumstances he doesn't wish to share in print.

His existence was shaken.

"The thought of finality just rings loudly in your ear: It's all over," he said. "My family is essentially gone."

Fox-Lambert was living a quiet life alone in Vancouver when he eventually decided to dabble in dating.

While walking along the Columbia riverfront four years ago he spotted the woman who would turn his heart back on.

When he met her, he'd already suffered through a whirlwind of a second marriage, built on the unstable foundation of a fiery love affair.

With romantic highs and gut-wrenching lows, this latest relationship has flickered on and off. Now they are on the outs, maybe forever this time after she accused Fox-Lambert — falsely, he said — of cheating.

"I told her that I loved her and would always be in love with her," he said. "I waved as she drove away. I'm afraid that is the end of our story."

Susan Tredick, 76, rebounded from the death of her husband in her own way. After almost 40 years of marriage, her husband had a massive heart attack in 2011. He was gone in four minutes.

After months of cathartic mourning, the Ridgefield woman embarked into the dating world. In a year and a half, Tredick has been on dozens of dates: some mellow, some erotic, many fleeting.

"Frankly, I'm enjoying this freedom," she said. "I see no reason to let life stop and pass you by."

Tredick quickly learned she isn't interest in men her age, preferring the vitality of those decades her junior.

"I've always been a really sexual woman, I'd like to still be sexual, but dating men my age and older just isn't working for me," she said. "I find that younger men are very interesting to me. Very, very interesting to me."

Tredick said from her experiences older men are just as fixated on sex as younger guys, but often were unable to perform in the bedroom.

Her current 57-year-old "gentleman friend" from Oregon started as a casual pairing, but as emotions started playing a larger role in their relationship, their status has since become complicated.

Tredick said one of her daughters has raised concerns about their age gap. She hasn't told her other two children.

"It doesn't have to suit her. It just has to suit me," Tredick said.

Staying single

Despite an overwhelming drive for some to find a romantic companion, others prefer to remain unattached, whether for emotional reasons or financial. Keeping finances in order is a major driving factor for many who remain unattached.

"A lot of individuals seriously want to protect their assets for their own children," said Gail Haskett, president of Aging Resources Inc. in Vancouver.

Donna Stewart, 58, has her own reasons for staying single.

"At my age, men have a tendency to fall apart," she said.

Stewart had her fill of caregiving when she was burdened with the emotional and painful duty of looking after her dying parents in the last decade. When they were gone, she pledged to never again put herself in the position where she would have to give that much of herself.

Her last romantic date was in 2004, though she does spend time with men. But they are friends, she said, more like brothers than anything else.

Never married and without kids, she's content to remain single, living in Washougal with her nephew.

"The idea of purposely adding another person who eats and poops sounds absurd to me," Stewart said. "I have much better things to do with my life."

Lack of fish in the sea

As a straight single woman in her late 60s, Kathy Huss recognizes the reality that there aren't many men to go around.

There are plenty of fish in the sea when you're 20, but the imbalance between the sexes increases with age.

Because women tend to live longer, there are fewer men the older they age. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there were 90.5 males per 100 females in the 65-year-old population. With 85-year-olds, there were only 58.3 males per 100 females.

Living in Vancouver, Huss has hit a few bumps on the road to romance, including dodging some money-making scams while using dating sites, but not enough to take her out of the game.

For a woman whose "bucket list" includes a journey to Alaska to see the glaciers, she's not ready to put her feet up.

Huss believes our society, which tends to cater to youth, has a tendency to view older people as mummies left in the dust. But the thirst for love, sensuality, affection often remains.

Some older people spend their remaining years in near isolation, away from the feelings that once drove them, which Huss said is a shame. She hopes they remember their value, a presence within them that -- if they choose -- can be shared with another. "To feel like they are people," Huss said.

An eternal spark

In two weeks, the Fairway Village couple will be married. As a gift to Van Rossen and Veca, dozens of friends teamed up to plan the March 16 ceremony at Glenwood Community Church. All the lovebirds have to do is show up.

After she answered "yes" in December, Van Rossen bought a diamond engagement ring. Even though he'd already asked many times, he treated his ultimate proposal with the respect of tradition.

Van Rossen got down on his aged knees and slipped the ring on Veca's finger, asking her to be his wife.

Even though she once thought it had passed her by, Veca learned a new lesson about love — it's never too late. There is a light that never goes out.

"You just have to follow your heart," she said.

Stover E. Harger III: 360-735-4530; http://twitter.com/col_hoods; stover.harger@columbian.com