WASHINGTON — Murray Katz, 82, a retired senior federal patent-appeals examiner, has made a transition that lies ahead for millions of Americans.
"When I was growing up, I didn't see women who were in their 60s and 70s as women," he said recently. "Now, it's amazing. The men I know are all looking at 80-year-old women. They're our friends. We listen to them. We dance with them. We have sex with them when we can. It's beyond comprehension."
For many it's unimaginable. But one of the things new under the sun since Katz was a boy is an 18-year increase in U.S. life expectancy, much of it spent in healthy retired life.
Those who are living through it spend their time in the traditional American way: pursuing happiness. And so it is that seniors today aren't just dating more, they're the fastest-growing users of Internet dating services and the fastest growing group of cohabiters.
To be sure, older men remain in short supply and millions of widows decide that meeting one man's needs was enough. A few million more are ailing beyond caring. Still, there more couples than ever like Eleanor Robinson and John Kunec.
She's 85, a Scrabble player, poet and table tennis champ whose social hub is the bustling Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, Md., just north of Washington. He's 83, fit and friendly, a retired government accountant. Both are widowed.
As surely as she carries his harmonica in her tote bag and they finish each other's sentences and watch ballgames together, they're a couple.
"I never had a relationship such as I have now," confided Robinson, a Roman Catholic school girl from West Philadelphia who married at 19 and was widowed 54 years later.
"It's like I'm a kid," she said. "When I'm with him, I'm caring for him, and when I'm not with him, I'm thinking about him."
Her beau — still a term in their set — had less to say. But Kunec's a fine harmonica player, and the first tune out of his mouth during the intermission at a recent senior center dance was a stately rendition of the old Ray Charles hit "I Can't Stop Loving You."
Nonetheless, the couple maintain separate houses and marriage isn't in the picture. "The complications wouldn't be worth it," Robinson explained. "I've limited income that I've decided to share with my grandchildren and I wouldn't want to interfere with his family."
Multiply this by a million or two, drop the ages by a decade or more and you have a more accurate picture of what many seniors are up to these days, or would like to be.
Longer healthy life expectancy is part of the explanation. There are also more men around, thanks largely to better drugs and treatments for diseases that more often afflict men, such as heart disease and cancers of the prostate, colon and rectum.
Seniors are also richer, their constant-dollar incomes more than triple what they were in 1960. Sex is hardly out of the question, thanks to Viagra and its cousins, which about 14 percent of senior men use, according to an AARP study.
Finding partners is easier, too, the Internet being a superior resource to barstools or the friends of friends. According to Mark Brooks, a consultant and newsletter writer who tracks the Internet-dating industry, the number of seniors joining online dating services has risen at double-digit rates annually since 2003, the most of any age group.
But attitude changes are probably the biggest factor in the expanding social lives of seniors.
A generation ago, romance among the elderly was widely derided, said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist who's studied dating among older adults.
"Falling in love at an elderly age was seen as somewhere between unwise and dementia," she said. In the parlance of the day, only "dirty old men" pursued sex. Cohabitation was not just low-class, as the term "shacking up" implied, it was morally "living in sin."
Today, the elderly find remarriage fraught with headaches: It threatens some pensions. It alarms children worried about inheritances. It comes with love-testing anxiety about liability for a new spouse's future health costs. So remarriage rates among seniors are flat.
Instead, Schwartz said, "People who wouldn't have let their daughters into the house if they were cohabiting are now doing the same thing."
According to Susan Brown, a demographer at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, cohabiting among older people increased 50 percent from 2000 to 2006, based on census figures.
The total — 1.8 million — counts only couples who live together full time and were willing to admit it to census interviewers. Part-time cohabiting — traveling together, sharing a summer house, spending weekends together — is up at least as sharply, according to seniors and people who work with them.
Does anyone in their age group disapprove?
"Maybe in the red states," sniffed Eve Jacobs, 87, of Friendship Heights, Md., a labor demographer who still publishes in the field.
Opposition is more likely from children whose widowed parents are newly in love, said Joanne Wilder, a Pittsburgh lawyer and the editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
"Many of them take a pretty dim view of this behavior," she said, and their parents know it. "Matrimonial lawyers see a lot of people looking for ways to break things to the kids," Wilder continued. "They'll say, `My daughter will kill me!' or 'They really like her, but I don't think they'd like it if we got married.' "
Consequently, prenuptial agreements are much discussed at poolside in adult communities. "They make it safe for his kids to like you," said Linda Stevens, 70, of Arlington, Va.
The children's acceptance is key to older romances that flourish, said Steve Shields, the chief executive officer of Meadowlark Hills, a resident-governed adult living center in Manhattan, Kan.
"The need for approval and support from their children is really large," he said. "No matter how deeply they love in late life, the importance of the love of their kids never diminishes."
Shields is a big fan of late-life romance. "People 65 or 75 who are dating look younger and act younger," he said. "There's as much adolescent energy around them as there is around teens, but there's lots more life savvy. It's neat to watch."
The rules of dating among seniors can be as dumb and cruel as those in junior high school, however. That's because they're the same ones that people followed when they first dated. For example:
- The older they get, the more senior men favor younger women, according to researchers. The new wrinkle is that senior women choose younger men, too, when they can afford them. Going younger has a downside, said Schwartz, the senior relationship expert. "A lot of men and women who've done well are afraid they'll be loved for their money. But then they go out and marry someone 12 years younger and all but assure it."
- Good men are hard to find. Unmarried women aged 65 to 74 outnumber men of that age by more than two to one, according to the census. And the disparity grows with age. Pickings can be especially slim in rural communities, said Liz Levaro, a doctoral candidate at Oregon State University in Corvalis who's writing about new romance among the elderly. Her finding: "If a guy's got his own teeth and can drive and dance, he's a hottie."
- The dynamics of sex remain fraught. When the AARP asked divorced 60-plus men what they liked best about being single, 22 percent answered more sex. Just 1 percent of divorced women that age agreed. Brooks, the Internet dating expert, said seniors' personal ads often were deceptive about sex and commitment: "Women lie about wanting casual relationships. Men lie about wanting long-term ones."
That senior relationships work out as well as they do is a tribute to people who know a lot about loving. Having leisure and a little money helps, said Robinson, Kunec's partner. So does living without obligations, she said, free to be herself entirely.
To explain the last, she told a story:
Her late husband, whom she described as a good, smart man, was the family's only wage-earner, though they worked hard together to advance his career.
Although frugal, he loved to travel, she said, and once conceived a trip to Ireland that involved swapping houses with a family there.
She located an interested Irish family and they were set to go until a change in regulations on traveling pets made it impossible for Bridey Anne Murphy, the Robinsons' Kerry blue terrier, to accompany them.
They couldn't go without the dog, her husband declared. When his wife said she had her heart set on it, he countered: "But where will you get the money?"
She had some money due from census canvassing, she recalled. She borrowed the rest from the bank and went.
The two months on her own in Ireland were magical, she said, not least because, after a lifetime of being someone's child or wife or mother, she was free to be herself.
"Now I feel like I'm in Ireland every day," she said.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008