My friend Jim, also a 1936 baby, has been divorced for many years, and having moved to Wilmington two years ago, is not in a relationship. Not from lack of trying. He is constantly looking for someone age-appropriate, but the search is nowhere as easy as I would have thought. If you are now happily married, be grateful. Dating may have been fun once, but not the umpteenth time around.
He sees an attractive, single woman in the laundry room in his condo, he tells me. He does his laundry often for the next few weeks hoping to see her again. When he finally does, he suggests they go for coffee sometime, and she gives him her phone number. He has nothing to write it down with and rushes back to his apartment, repeating it over and over in his mind to remember it. He tries to call her several times, but she is out. Is she never home? When at last she answers, she is busy for the time he suggests. He waits another week to avoid seeming pushy and calls again. They go for mid-afternoon coffee and have a lengthy chat. It was pleasant, says Jim, but her children and grandchildren live nearby and she spends much of her time with them. She certainly is not lonely. Jim gets the impression she already has enough in her life and does not want more. He does not speak of her again.
He chats with an attractive new receptionist at the community center, and comments on the single life, noting her absence of a wedding ring. She is not single, she tells him. Her husband had a stroke twenty years ago, and she cares for him every day plus overseeing her mother who has Alzheimer’s. Bam! The door closes.
He meets another woman that he finds very attractive sexually, unusual for him, he says. They chat and she casually mentions her friend, Bob. That, Jim tells me, is the way women let men know there is already someone in their life. Bam! Another door slams shut.
From his experiences, I am getting a picture of the dating scene late in life, and how much different it is from our high school days. Back then, we were all horny and we all knew it. The only challenge was to get the best deal for ourselves. Was this the most attractive partner we could expect, or should we hold out for better? “Attractive” meant different things to each side, but the evaluation process was the same, and it took a lot of experimentation and heartache to find the right compromise.
Dating past high school, say in our 30s and 40s, compatibility became the most important characteristic, easily trumping sexuality. (I am pontificating about this. I have no firsthand experience and am only observing and hypothesizing.) How would it feel to live with the person day in and day out? Do they have compatible habits? And what is compatible? Is the ideal person exactly like us, or should their characteristics counter and compliment ours, even at the risk of being occasionally irritating? Are any factors deal-breakers? At this point everyone has baggage, any of which could be a deal-breaker. The selection process is much more difficult.
Now, at Jim’s age, the search for a mate is really difficult. Even with a recent death of a spouse, most have developed a network of friends and family to satisfy social needs, and without the raging hormone levels, all that remains is the danger of becoming a sudden caretaker for someone new in your life.
The successful late-in-life relationships I noticed from my parent’s generation were widows and widowers who had known each other from high school. They could still see the other as they once were and recall happy times with common friends. Next-best relationships I found were those of singles living at my parent’s retirement community. Many were in relationships, with or without privileges. They would eat together in the common dining room and go on trips together, but at the end of the day, each would go back to their own apartment.
But one aspect of dating has gotten easier. Jim says he has learned in only in the last few years that it is possible to end a relationship by just saying so, a simple truth not as obvious as you may think. Remember Paul Simon’s song, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?” It is difficult, but only temporarily so, and definitely do-able. Listen to it again if you are still dating. “You don’t need to be coy, Roy.”