A Road Trip To The Future: My Coupledom has recently aged out of its “middle years” and into early Seniorhood. And we are hardly alone as we join the ranks of baby boomers who over the next two decades will be marching forth to take their seat at the table of ultimate maturity. The announcement of this phase of life passage seemed printed all over the interstate on billboards, in tourist gift shops, rest stops and scenic overlooks, as my husband and I navigated a 3000-mile road trip this Spring, stopping to visit famous garden estates and small cities where many of our fellow tourists were also our fellow seniors. Who else has the time midweek to frolic amongst the azaleas and rhododendrons of the former estates of the historic wealthy or the quaint cobblestone streets of southern cities replete in Civil War markers and Spanish moss?
A Readjustment: Everywhere I looked I saw mirrors, mirrors of my now and future Coupledom, mirrors of myself, my spouse, in the faces and shapes of seniors who shared our journey. And these images of me, us, my peers, brought reality to a psychological proximity far closer than comfortable. Time to readjust to a new reality and recalibrate The Coupledom.
What Club Are We Joining Now? Throughout the life cycle we are given club membership labels, some handed out when we are too young even to notice. Does a toddler know he is a toddler or does a preschooler find comfort in that membership club? Not likely. But certainly when we hit adolescence, everyone lets us know our membership status. And so it goes until that final club, Seniorhood. And within Seniorhood, are there further delineations: early, middle, late and then, divine membership in whatever afterlife vision matches your belief system? All of these labels and passages influence how we view ourselves and our place in society but perhaps none as challenging, I believe, as is this last one, which marks a phase of life so profound in its meaning that thinkers from the beginning of human consciousness have struggled to come to peace with it.
Senior Coupledom and Our Western Culture Clash: My baby boomer buddies and their recent predecessors (folks who are over 66 years of age today) are challenging notions of aging by choosing active lifestyles that depict seniors running marathons, learning new languages and basically thumbing their noses at Norman Rockwell images of old, genteel white-haired elders seated in rockers on a sunset lit porch, passing time. The new image of the toned, energetic, cosmetically altered and stimulated elder who, with the help of Viagra, can keep on perking, presents a useful standard of health and relevance that brings many benefits to today’s senior population. All good? Yes, of course, except for one powerful message in the mix; that the appearance of “old” is not cool. Was it ever cool to be “old” in Western Culture? I don’t know, but what was perhaps cool enough was to be respected for one’s agedness and feel some self-respect as well. I am not sure if today’s seniors feel the pride once felt by their ancestors when what they see in their mirrors is culturally viewed as something to be avoided at all cost(s), pun intended. So the good news is that we can live longer and benefit from medical achievements that prolong an active lifestyle. The bad news is that it is not cool to actually show our age. What is the greatest compliment for adults of almost any age? Wow, you don’t look 45, 55, 65, or 85.
Loss and New Found Gains: So where does that leave the aging Coupledom? Struggling to find dignity and self-respect individually and together as a couple in a journey that offers as many opportunities as it does limitations and losses. The awesome and courageous couple is that team that takes in the reality of what is lost through the aging process (youth status so revered in our western culture; youthful appearance and abilities; unlimited pathways to success and love) and replaces these glories and dreams of glory with new ones.
Aging Together, A Complex Package: What I have noticed in my personal and professional exposure to Senior Coupledom is how the variables that guided past choices shift when a couple reaches a certain “maturity.” Decisions and options are no longer dependent on the quality of school systems, job locations, and optimal access to elderly parents. The restrictions, parameters or considerations that guided prior decision-making now fade to some degree as a couple ages out of the child-bearing years, the sandwich generation, the empty nest. Ironically, this liberation from the concerns of former years can place an intensified scrutiny on the workings of the couple’s relationship. Whims, dreams, health concerns, bucket lists, stylistic inclinations, that one or both members kept in abeyance while achieving other goals, now emerge as needs, wants, my time, my turn. But are these longings mutual? Ah, there is the rub.
My Turn Or Yours? What surprised me most in my small sample of retirees, semi-retired and working elders, was the inherent, almost organic balance established in meeting the needs and wants of each member of their Coupledom. Perhaps it is the truest sign of maturity; couples who, despite different inclinations regarding significant decisions, found the ability to compromise and find suitable and satisfactory packages for living together that meant some yield on both sides, sufficient gratification for both. Location is a big one: what state or country or climate to reside in, how to allocate the limited funds, whether to own a pet and live in a house, or buy a condo that takes care of itself yet sacrifices pet ownership, choose dwellings that offered handicap services but restrict neighbors to the seniors only age group. Profound and mutual compromise was the signature of maturity and a pathway to couples’ contentment.
Shared Interests and Separate Lives: I was also pleased to discover that many couples were not in lock-step all day long, that though their hours apart were no longer dictated by job responsibilities or childcare chores, couples did separate to pursue hobbies, volunteer work or part-time jobs so that when they returned to the home, they had something new to share with each other. Their sources of stimulation did not rest solely on what was generated together but brought in the outside world as well. Another intriguing and not uncommon practice was that of couples who actually spent significant stretches of time living a part. Seasonal preferences made one couple spend portions of the winter season two thousand miles away from each other because one was passionate about snow sports and staying involved in community activities, while the other yearned to banish the snow shovel to an earlier chapter of his life in exchange for beach chairs, sunshine and sand between the toes. They “visited each other” at the midpoint of the three months’ winter season and then reunited in early Spring to resume sharing the daily amenities of home. These are not easy choices but there is an integrity to honoring difference as just that and coming up with an option that allows room to breathe for both parties.
A Powerful Variable, Health: How satisfying or happy one’s Senior Coupledom is depends on many variables but none quite as powerful as health. Here we introduce the element of a crapshoot, how the chips fall, luck and unluck, as I like to say. If one partner’s life is very restrictive, what does that mean for the healthy partner? Can they feel deserving of and able to enjoy activities and outings that their partner no longer can participate in without feeling too guilty or too ashamed to pursue? Can that more handicapped partner give them emotional “permission” to do so? Perhaps with the help of family or aids? This is the toughest patch of all. The pace of aging is not always even, so that pattern of compromise and flexibility that enables the healthy Coupledom is especially necessary here. Once again, the maturity of the individuals, their mutual respect, and a shared freedom to express wishes and yet accept compromise will make even these challenges of aging together more bearable.
Wisdom is the True Virtue Of Aging: I found a grace in the couples next to me that strolled through the gardens. I found a rhythm and pacing in the couples who stood next to me watching the dolphins swim near the jetty in southern Florida or who rode the elevator with me back up to their apartments, laden with supermarket plunder. They knew each other well and still seemed to enjoy their companionship. I felt both fearful and admiring. I studied them closely, strangers, acquaintances and friends. Are they bored yet? They honestly didn’t seem the least bit bored. In fact, these glimpses of senior life were unexpectedly reassuring to me and bore signs of a kind of wisdom that conveyed patience, tolerance and flexibility.
Chapter Maturity: My first amble through Senior Coupledom was better than I anticipated. But I still have quite a lot of work to do to get comfortable with the mirror image of me and us as Chapter Maturity takes hold.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012