Films for Later Life

   

by Connie Goldman

I recently asked some people between the ages of 20 and 45 what they thought about 70-year-old people hugging, touching, having sexual relations, living together. Some laughed, some just smiled. One person responded, “Aren’t people over 65 beyond all that?”

Well… No.

Love, intimacy, sex, and building meaningful relationships are not the exclusive domain of the young. Older couples who have found new life partners in their later years have generously told me their stories. There’s an independence of spirit that comes with aging that surprises younger people. A woman in her 70s confirmed this for many when she told me, “We make our own plans on how we live together. Why at my age would I give a hoot about what people think?”

And sex?

In The Princess Bride, Peter Falk must reassure his grandson
that the "love story" he is reading doesn't have “a lot of kissing” in it.

Alive and well according to the 22 couples I interviewed for my book, Late Life Love — Romance and New Relationships in Later Years. Human needs for closeness, touch, and intimacy remain with us until our last breath. Older people embrace, kiss, and make love. Sexuality is alive and thriving in folks with big bellies and gray hair. Touching, caressing, enjoying each other’s bodies offer intimacy and pleasure. For some, the physical relationship isn’t what it was in their younger days, yet many have told me that both their lovemaking and emotional lives get richer and deeper in late-life relationships.

Here are just a few brief quotes extracted from my interviews:

It was apparent when we first met that we had a physical attraction for one another and that has never left us. We can’t keep our hands off each other even when we’re watching television. You can be mature and still be romantic, you know!

The common joke is that children of any age don’t want to think of their parents knowing about sex or doing anything sexual, but we enjoy exploring our physical relationship in a lot of ways.

I don’t have any inhibitions, and I enjoy sex more now than when I was younger. I do like to have sex in the dark because if I catch sight of my arm with all the skin hanging down, it’s distracting. When I see it I think, “Who is this old lady?” Anyway, we continue to have a very romantic relationship, and I love that.

We may not have sex the same way as when we were younger, but we have good physical relations that are satisfying and enjoyable, with tender intimacy. We enjoy each other’s body a great deal. We sleep nude, and a night rarely goes by without touching and cuddling.

Innocence (2000), by Australian filmmaker Paul Cox, is perhaps
the first film to break an unspoken taboo with its sensitive portrayal
of late-life intimacy.

Until fairly recently one would have been hard pressed to corroborate this reality with films. The film Innocence (2000), by Australian filmmaker Paul Cox, is perhaps the first to break an unspoken taboo with its sensitive portrayal of late-life intimacy. Its two main characters — Andreas (Charles Tingwell) who is recently widowed, and Claire (Julia Blake), who is still married to her first husband John — reconnect after more than 40 years apart. They discover that the intense passion they shared when they were young is still there, and they soon become involved in a rekindled love affair.

The film offers us ruminations on love which are both poignant and perceptive. “Each stage of life has its own kind of love,” Andreas observes. “Now it's deeper, pared down to the essentials. We spend years destroying that part of love that gives us pain. I love you a lot less selfishly now.”


Andreas and Claire also find that this time around, there are more complications. Indeed, the joys and pleasures of re-mating in the later years come with what I call leftovers from other lives — adult children, grandchildren, health concerns, previous living situation, sexual expectations, financial situations, divorce, caregiving experience, grief and loss. Every couple, with eyes wide open, with maturity and wisdom, must make adjustments and compromises in dealing with these “leftovers” and arrive at their own individual arrangement.

Some marry, others live together and don’t plan to marry, many have a committed relationship but live in their own houses, some live in different cities and plan regular times each month to be together. Some have adult children who don’t approve of the new relationship and won’t acknowledge it. Others have joyfully integrated the two families.

“We’ve been together three years. A few months ago we had a spiritual commitment ceremony. Our lawyer advised us not to get legally married and the financial advisor told me the same thing. So we decided not to officially marry, but we both felt a deep commitment about the relationship. Neither of us considered that it was a temporary thing that could be dissolved any time, so James approached a retired Episcopal minister to bless us in a ceremony. We know that one of us will most probably be taking care of the other at some point. But we have today and we bless and enjoy each day we have together.”

“When my wife died we had been married 48 years. About ten years before she died she was already ill with diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart problems, the whole works. One day she wrote a letter and told me it was to be opened when she died. I opened the letter after she passed away and found she had made two requests. The first thing she asked in the letter was that when our three children came over we were all to go and have a Chinese meal and she specified the restaurant. We had long before given up Chinese restaurants because the sodium in the food was bad for her health. The second request was that I was to mourn her for a week and then go out and find somebody to be my partner. The message was simple — I’m dead, you’re alive, live.”

“Was I looking for a husband? Absolutely not! I was still grieving for my husband. We had been married for so many years and we understood each other's rhythms, likes, and dislikes. And I have my work, my small business, and that keeps me busy and active all day. It took quite a while before I realized I was lonely. You can't work all the time. Oh yes, I have lots of friends, but I was starting to want a companion, a friend with whom to share things, experiences, meals, the day-to-day stuff.

"I don't think we'll marry but whether or not he was my husband, I'd take care of Mike if he was ill. It wouldn't depend on us being married. We never know what the future holds. Mike could be taking care of me. Our relationship gives me more than money ever could give me. I'd rather have Mike next to me in bed than a pile of money!"


Away From Her. When the symptoms of approaching Alzheimer's
become too glaring to ignore, Fiona (played by Julie Christie)
poignantly laments, “I think I'm beginning to disappear.”

We do indeed “never know what the future holds.” The prospect of losing one's beloved — through death or, perhaps worst, through a mental deterioration that obliterates the “person” we loved — is no longer remote as it seemed in our youth. Marge's story will resonate with someone you know or possibly live with. She's 83 years old, her partner Ed is 87. Marge had been divorced for over three decades; Ed was the primary caregiver for his wife who died 16 years ago.

"Our families knew each other years ago when we both had young children. One day we reconnected unexpectedly in a super market. 'Let's have lunch,' he said and five hours later the conversation was still going strong."

Marge and Ed now have a committed relationship, live together, and share their lives and families. They are also sharing Ed's quickly deteriorating memory. It all began with confusion about driving, and Ed was forced to give up his car keys. Then he began forgetting what day it was, who was coming over to visit, whether it was dinnertime, or if they had already had their meal. Yes, it was early Alzheimer's; and yes; everyone's relationship with Ed is quickly changing. The home he'll be moving into shortly is being checked out thoroughly by the family. And Ed, and Marge as well, soon will be living a different life.

But, even at this extremity, there may be lessons for love to teach us. In the film, Away from Her, by Canadian director Sarah Polley, Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have been married for 44 years. They live in an isolated farmhouse in Ontario, Canada, where they enjoy cross-country skiing and sex. Then one evening Fiona puts the frying pan away in the refrigerator. At a dinner with friends, she reaches for a bottle but can't remember the word wine. Later, she says, ”I think I'm beginning to disappear.” She has too much respect for herself, and too much pity for Grant, to subject him to what seems her certain decay. She makes a decision on her own to enter Meadowlake, a residence facility for Alzheimer patients. As the disease consumes her and her memory and attachment to her husband fades, the couple faces a transition from lovers to strangers. The film is honest, brilliantly acted, and speaks with honesty of the sacrifices that often come with love.


My Afternoons With Margueritte serves up a different kind
of late-life love.

I want to round out my two “viewing suggestions” with a third film. My Afternoons With Margueritte — by French director Jean Becker — is a “love story," but one very different from the other love stories I've been discussing. In a chance encounter, Germain (Gérard Depardieu), a man in his 50s who is looked on as the village idiot, meets Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus), an articulate, highly intelligent and very frail woman. Between Germain and Margueritte, there are 40 years and 200 pounds difference. Margueritte is sitting on the park bench, reading aloud excerpts from a novel. Germain is lured by her passion for life and the magic of literature from which he has always felt excluded. Over time, their afternoons together transform both their lives and start them on a new journey.

The deep friendship in the movie is a story of a deep human love — what it could be and probably should be, if we reach out beyond ourselves. Of course it isn't the same love story as couples re-mating, but it's one example of our need to care about someone special and to have them care about us. It is reassuring to realize that the particular gift of late-life love is a gift that may await any of us.


Each interview I've collected, each couple's experience, each story is individual and unique. Couples have their own adjustments and compromises in dealing with finances, adult children, and living situations, deteriorating health and growing dependence. Late- life love — along with the challenges, joys, and pleasures of re-mating in the later years — continue to enrich the lives of so many. A colleague once told me that those of us in the winter of our lives can still find summer. I knew there was truth in that statement when, in my presence, a woman in her 70s said to her 80-year-old partner, “Love me. Hold me in your arms and hold me in your heart.”


Formerly on the staff of National Public Radio, Connie Goldman is an award-winning radio producer and reporter. For almost 30 years her public radio programs, books, and speaking have been exclusively concerned with the changes and challenges of aging. Grounded in the art of personal stories collected from hundreds of interviews, Connie”s presentations are designed to inform, empower, and inspire. Her message on public radio, in print, and in person is clear — make any time of life an opportunity for new learning, exploring creative pursuits, self-discovery, spiritual deepening, and continued growth. Her books include The Ageless Spirit, Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer, The Gifts of Caregiving: Stories of Hardship, Hope and Healing, Late Life Love: Romance and New Relationships in Late Years, and Tending the Earth, Mending the Spirit: The Healing Gifts of Gardening. Visit her Web site at congoldman.org