Age-Gap Couples in the Twilight Zone
What challenges do the elder years bring to these, and to all, couples?
Posted October 11, 2011
When older-man-younger-woman age-gap couples first marry, they generally feel emotionally more or less the same age. Some of these relationships may include aspects of a father-daughter kind of closeness. In many cases though the kinds of marriage problems and delights that they face are the same as those faced by most new couples.
During the long period of "midlife", ages 25-65, such couples often enjoy life together quite comfortably. How well they fare, however, is likely to depend on the extent of their skills for talking cooperatively about their differences. When, for instance, one spouse would like to have children and the other is more interested in visiting his grandchildren, the spouses need solid skills for talking cooperatively to create solutions that work optimally for them both.
As they continue to age, they will continue to need to negotiate differing life-stage desires . Strains between his desires and hers may arise as he faces retirement while she is still heading upwards career-wise. Similarly, as his physical decline brings age-related decreases in ability to enjoy sports or travel, the couple may need to find new leisure interests to pursue together. Again, as with any couple, the more, quantitatively and qualitatively, that spouses differ, the higher their skill level needs to be at talking sensitively together and finding win-win action plans.
Then comes the potentially toughest part. The challenges may increase exponentially for age-gap couples as an elder spouse enters the twilight years.
A thoughtful friend of mine, author and teacher Joan Baronberg, wrote the following brief essay that encapsulates the realities of the autumn years of aging.
by Joan Baronberg
I've been thinking about parallels between growing up and growing older.
The older we get, the more like little children we become. Very old people are often quite self-centered, focused on their own primal needs. They require progressively more physical help to accomplish the basics of eating and toileting. They whine and cry, sometimes as easily as, and sounding like, little kids. Anger too is closer to the surface.
Then there are the "growing pains." We talk about aches and pains in the legs of youth as "growing pains." As we age we get more aches and pains in all our bones. So are these "ungrowing pains?" Is all the other aging stuff "ungrowing" too?
We talk of life as a cycle. I picture the changes like a graph on a chart. We move to the apex and then down from it.
I observed the downward changes closehand with my mother's descent into dementia. Her intellectual and physical accomplishments at first moved slowly downward. They then picked up speed away from that apex until the details in her world seemed to make as little sense to her as they probably would to an infant. Emotionally she wavered between short spikes of anger and long easy-going waves of sweetness. Like an infant, she was always eminently huggable.
I recently re-read an article on Israeli kibbutzim now taking in elderly non-members and providing retirement, nursing, and assisted living care. As Leora Eren Frucht explained in her article "The Kibbutz at Twilight" (Hadassah Magazine, November 2007), "Once considered the best places to grow up, Israeli's iconic collectives are now known as the best places in the country to grow old." Senior residences for members are kept in the center of the kibbutz, "near the dining hall, at the very hub of the kibbutz. This location expresses the way the elderly are seen on kibbutzim. They were the founders; they remain at the heart of the kibbutz.'" Nice.
More to the point of my musings above is: "At Kibbutz Givat Brenner, veteran member Nurit Sichuk recalls how the parents used to gather outside the children's home at the end of the day to feed their kids and put them to bed. It was a social experience; everyone would meet everyone outside the children's home. Now, this is the place for those social encounters. Every day around 6 in the evening, the members congregate around the nursing home to visit their parents, have dinner with them and," she adds with a sigh, "put them to bed.'"
For the age-gap wife, being there to "put her husband to bed" represents a major shift from the excitement of their initial marriage. How will she stay connected with her husband, keeping him, as in the kibbutz, "at the center" of her life, without sacrificing her ability to live the more vibrant life of a younger person? Finding a way to keep a significantly older senior citizen whose capabilities have radically faded at the center of one's life while still living fully as a mid-life woman, that's a challenge.
Yet marrying someone of the same age offers no guarantee that end-of-life physical and emotional decline will occur simultaneously. The odds may be better, and yet many couples age asymmetrically. That's life...
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive marriage skills-learning website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.