Love is in the air and that got us to thinking about HOW romance changes as we age. Is romance the same in your 20's as it is in your 30's, 40's, 60's, beyond? Could we learn a little about love from people who've seen it all/been there done that...from people who may be 'older' but who are young at heart? We turned to a leading expert on the subject, Amanda Barusch, Ph.D., Professor & Associate Dean for Research, University of Utah, College of Social Work. She wrote Love Stories of Later Life: A Narrative Approach to Understanding Romance.
Q: Dr. Barusch, Love Stories of Later Life: A Narrative Approach to Understanding Romance is an essay of love stories from older people from all walks of life. What brought you to compile the book?
Dr. Amanda Barusch: An infatuation. Approaching 50, I had been happily married for two decades with two fantastic children, and I was “gob-smacked” (as we say in New Zealand) by a crush! I had all the symptoms I remembered from high school – loss of sleep, appetite changes, obsessive thinking, and emotional ups and downs – coupled with the feeling that this couldn’t be happening to me. Being an academic I decided the best way to cope was to learn about other people’s experiences. Talking to friends and neighbors, I became convinced that romance was a huge issue for people in late life. Looking at the professional literature, I realized that it was widely neglected. So, I set out on what I thought would be a one-semester study of how older adults experienced romance. It lasted five years and resulted in the book.
Q: According to your research, what is the most common misunderstanding about love and romance as we age?
Dr. Amanda Barusch: I think the most common misunderstanding is that romance is irrelevant to later life. For a variety of reasons, people seem to think that we can become “too old” for romance. This translates into some rather nasty responses to love in later life on behalf of people who should know better. So older people who are fortunate enough to fall in love and have crushes in their 80s and 90s sometimes face disapproval and ridicule from those around them.
Q: Does romance change as we get older? How?
Dr. Amanda Barusch: Yes, it changes – often in ways that are hard to predict . Older adults I have spoken to tell me that it gets better – deeper – more unique – more treasured. Some report that free time improves their sexual experiences. Others report that they have no interest in sex. Some report less “baggage,” others report more. So individual experiences vary tremendously, which makes me think that age is much less a factor in determining how we will experience romance than we might imagine.
One important change – that has been reported by researchers in a range of settings-- is that older adults are generally better at seeking out interactions and experiences that will make us happy. We learn to avoid “toxic” relationships and spend our time where it will do us the most good. This tends to improve our close relationships.
Q: How important is romance as we age? Does it become less important and, if so, at any particular age?
Dr. Amanda Barusch: Again, it depends on the individual. Some people – particularly women who are widowed – report no interest in romance. Some have speculated that they are reluctant to assume the gendered-responsibilities that sometimes come with relationships. But for others, romance is absolutely vital. Generally speaking, I think age is not a key factor in determining the importance of romance. Other things, like past experiences and physical and emotional well-being are greater determinants.
Q: Are there various phases of romance throughout our lives? Does the definition of romance change?
Dr. Amanda Barusch: No – I looked for clear dividing lines because I thought baby boomers were different from our parents. There were minor differences, but nothing that would suggest phases. I asked people whether their definition of romance or love had changed with time. Most said, No – “Love is love.”
Q: Is there a difference between romance at 20, 30, 60 and beyond?
Dr. Amanda Barusch: Wow – First, I think people exaggerate the differences age makes. Sure, bodies change, but people cope with these changes. Lots of older adults figure out ways to enjoy physical intimacy despite disability or age-related changes. I always try to remind people that age does NOT confer immunity to sexually transmitted diseases. I think the biggest difference relates to the amount of life that a person has left. So the stakes are a bit different. At 20 you’re looking at 60 – 80 more years of life. So people tend to look at relationships with more of a future orientation, if that makes sense. At 70, the years ahead are less – what’s at stake is different – the present matters more. I think this might be why some people only realize at 50 (or so) that the relationship doesn’t work. What might work just fine as an investment in the future may not work so well when the present is what really matters.
Q: After 5 years of research, what was the most surprising piece of information you uncovered after looking into people's love stories?
Dr. Amanda Barusch: Two things really, one was how people in their 80s could still experience crushes that made them feel like they were teenagers. The second was how little difference – deep down – there was between men and women in their emotional experiences of romance. Women may express things differently – or more – but men experience them too… This has made me look at men differently.
Q: Do you think younger people could learn a thing or two about love AND romance from older people/the elderly? If so, what?
Dr. Amanda Barusch: Oh, yes. I asked older adults what advice they would give. Generally, I think older people are much better at enjoying the present. Young people tend to worry a lot about where a relationship is going to go. They tend to “over think it” and, as a consequence, I think they sometimes miss out on the delightful moments romance has to offer. Older people know how to grab those moments and make the most of them.