Are sex and love taboo topics for you and your parents?
Don't be afraid to talk to your parent about love and sex, advises Relate counsellor and author, Barbara Bloomfield. They've got the same hopes and dreams as you have, but are probably just a bit shyer of talking about it.
After my mother was widowed in her sixties, I used to see quite a bit of her and we would talk on the phone three or four times a week. But, after a year or so, the phone started to go quiet and I wondered if she had become depressed, so I made the trip to Sussex to see her. She shyly let slip that she had forged a new relationship with the widower next door but one and was 'having a lot of fun going to agricultural shows’. This turned out to be a quaint sort of euphemism for all kinds of fun that she and Derek were enjoying that was nothing to do with me.
Whether your parents have been together a long time or a short while there are many pitfalls in a relationship that are difficult to avoid as they grow old together – or even apart. Here are some issues that are often faced by older couples with advice on how to overcome them.
Is romance dead?
My father was a lovely, dreamy sort of man but romantic he was not. For mum’s 60th birthday and after 30 years together, he had wrapped up a big parcel and proudly placed it in the middle of the living room. It turned out to be a new grass cuttings box for mum's lawnmower, and my father was not too badly hurt when she kicked this practical present across the room in his general direction.
Keeping the spark alive
Remind your parents that romance isn’t only for the start of a relationship. Perfect gifts are those which mean something to the receiver – for some people, that might be a grass clipping box, but for others they might want something a bit more personal. Encourage your parents to carry on doing special things for one another (or for their new partners) and remember that small gestures continue to go a long way, even if they’ve been together for years.
Is variety the spice of life?
From my own experience of being a couple’s counsellor with Relate for nearly 20 years, I would say that physical and mental health difficulties are the biggest challenge to an older couple that has been together for a long time. When one person becomes unwell or has difficulty with mobility, it is only too easy for the couple's world to shrink down to watching TV every evening. Most happy couples thrive on variety and activity but this becomes a challenge to some older people or those who are depressed.
Making time to enjoy life
If a parent or parents are sociable but finding it hard to get out, could they start a small group to be held in friends' homes? A book or film group, card evening, an exercise or a seed swap group is easy to arrange and can be lots of fun. If your parents feel they want to talk about their problems, Relate counselling is a safe and professional setting in which they can let go of their problems.
Where to look for love?
Our parents' generation may be shyer about relationships than we are but they dream, hope and suffer just like everyone else. Romance, courtesy and companionship remain important and, of course, love and sex. When I was researching the 'older daters' section of my book, The Relate Guide to Finding Love, I interviewed a large number of singles over 70 years of age to find out more about the challenges of finding love in later life.
For the women interviewed the issue most often raised was that there are not enough older men to go around. This is true: for every single and available man in his 60s or 70s there are 7 single women. This is partly because men tend to look for younger partners, partly because a lot of widowed men hide at home and say they don't want a new partner, and partly because of larger numbers of men self-identifying as gay.
Single and ready to mingle
If your parent is ready and wanting to date, they could try talking to you or a friend about dating conventions, venue ideas and what to wear. Things may have changed a lot since they were last thinking about romance but talking to friends or family members who they feel comfortable sharing with can make the learning experience fun rather than daunting. Perhaps you can encourage your parent by taking them shopping or helping them sift through the personal columns. My best tip about building new relationships is to encourage your mum or dad to think about old friends they may have lost touch with and see if there is a friendship that can be rekindled. This is worthwhile in itself to extend a friendship group and can lead to new relationships as your parent meets friends of friends.
How to find love again?
The main problems cited by the older men I’ve spoken to can be summed up like this: “Is it disrespectful to the memory of my deceased wife to be looking for love again?” and “I have no idea how to be friends with a woman!”.
Honesty’s the best policy
If it’s been a long time since your dad’s been on the dating scene, talk to him about dating and what might be expected as things may have changed. Talking about 'making new friends' rather than rushing into finding 'the one' could be helpful and help to reduce anxiety. If your dad wants to talk about sexual etiquette, say that being honest with his new partner is usually the best way to approach things rather than guessing at whether or not they’re ‘on the same page’. Sexual etiquette has changed considerably in recent years – some women may be quite reserved, while others may be much more open. The only way to work that out is to have an honest conversation.
Is 70 still sexy?
The nice thing about older sex is that it doesn't seem to be quite as 'urgent' and anxiety-fuelled at 75 as it was at 25. However, older lovers may have performance anxieties and may be afraid of exposing any parts of their bodies that they feel are less-than-perfect.
The birds and the bees
It may well be that your parents would rather discuss this with someone other than you! Don’t be offended by that, but be ready to talk if they want to. Gently tell your mum or dad to relax, turn the lights down low, and don't worry about performance. Just the touch of another human being can be wonderfully healing no one should do anything they don't feel comfortable with. Any sexual difficulties that persist can be taken to a reputable sex therapist - this isn't nearly so daunting as it sounds.
How to meet someone new?
In 1727, Miss Helen Morrison, described as a 'lonely spinster,' became the first woman to place a lonely hearts advert in a Manchester journal. The action was regarded as so scandalous that the mayor committed her to a lunatic asylum for four weeks. Nowadays, there are loads of internet sites that cater for silver surfers and it is quite respectable to find a new partner via the internet or a dating agency.
Wing it with your parent
If your parent wants help, you could you spend some time sifting through the internet together. This can be as fun as it is fruitful, so enjoy the time together. I'm sure we all know at least one happy couple that has met this way but internet lovers are not always what they seem so perhaps you can act as your parent's 'wingman' if they do decide to go down this route. Dates that don’t turn into lasting relationships can still be fun, and if they’re not great, they also make for good stories! Encourage your mum or dad to see this as a fun process rather than a quest for eternal love.
Barbara Bloomfield is the author of the world's first graphic novel about counselling Couple Therapy: Dramas of Love and Sex. To talk to someone from Relate, call 0300 100 1234 or visit www.relate.org.uk.
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