I taught social, psychological and medical gerontology for more than 25 years and occasionally even now walk into the classroom as instructor. I often used films in my classes, and I still keep up with the latest videos being offered to university professors and students. One of the most interesting and relatively new ones is called "For Better or Worse." It introduces the viewer to five couples who have shared 50 or more years together and who vary by race, class, cultural upbringing and religion, among other things.
As the film shows, sustaining long-lived relationships is becoming more difficult as we all live longer and sometimes find that we can end up spending several lifetimes with the same person. This works very well for some folks, but others come to look on the long years as better spent with perhaps several mates, rather than just one.
Sustaining long, intimate relationships requires commitment, skill and perseverance at any age. Some people are very good at communicating and have a lot of pleasing personality traits and an optimistic attitude that they can bring to their relationships. This positions them well for creating positive relationships and meeting life’s challenges successfully, but even these traits don’t help with everything life hands us. Gender, race, ethnicity, social class, education and sexual orientation also are important determinants of life’s opportunities and constraints. Purely personal strength sometimes isn’t enough to cope with everything, and long-standing habits are hard to give up or change even when they don’t really apply to, or solve, the problems of growing old together.
On the positive side, intimate relationships can be a source of mutual emotional and social support, shared interests and companionship, as well as the development of good communication skills. These well-developed life skills can be carried forward into the experience of widowhood and perhaps even second or third marriages.
We are discovering that there is a higher risk of divorce or separation during our later years. When we combine this with the ever-growing numbers of those who will lose their mates and become widows or widowers, we have a lot of single folks out there who are restructuring their lives.
Uncoupling in later life has real implications for our psychological well being, as well as our social involvement. Even though a lot of research is coming out that tells us something many of us already knew, namely, life gets better as we age, still, loneliness, life satisfaction and economic issues do raise their heads and can often be the real reasons behind the disruption of long-term marriages. This is especially true when one of the partners must become a caregiver. Our economic welfare and holdings in old age are very important, along with many other things related to old age, like an ever-changing physical structure and loss of friends and family.
The thing that sustains us through life difficulties is often our ability to accept change and adapt quickly to different circumstances. It has always been a source of some amazement to me to see how well human beings adapt to suddenly reduced circumstances. This can take the form of sleeping on the ground during an extended camping trip, to losing a home to flood or friends and kin to famine.
If our older years teach us anything, it’s how to adapt to change, often very quickly. Older folks get amazingly good at it. This can be observed if you work with them on a daily basis, as I have, or watch their behavior very closely.
It is one of the lessons they have to teach us and as we move through our Third Age, we need to keep the ability to change, modify our behavior and adjust to whatever life hands us, if we wish to survive in health and happiness.
By ANN GOWANS
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