Grandma's getting hitched, get used to it

When one of my relatives, a 66-year-old widow, recently married a divorced American in his mid-70s, another elderly family member sniped that it was shameful for a woman her age to remarry.

That harsh remark reflects the attitude of many in his generation that love and marriage are not for older people, and especially not older women.

A senior is expected to play the role of retiree and grandparent, not someone in love or getting married.

All the more if you are an older woman. Many still believe that women should stay married to their husbands for life, and remain widows after the men die.

There are more raised eyebrows and more of a stigma when an older woman remarries than when an older man takes a bride, and this just reflects deep-seated patriarchal values, counsellors say.

And people can be cruel with their criticism. "Some people can be very critical and say the woman is so old and still needs a man to fulfil her sexual needs," notes counsellor Jonathan Siew.

Just one generation ago, it was rare to hear of an elderly person marrying. In 1990, for example, only 86 men and 15 women aged 60 and older got married.

But those numbers have been creeping up steadily since. In the past decade, the number of grooms aged 60 and above tripled from 119 in 2003 to 369 last year.

There were still significantly fewer senior brides, but even their ranks swelled from 15 in 2003 to 61 last year.

Despite the growing number of seniors getting married, old attitudes die hard.

When I was gathering information for a news story on the trend of older people marrying, most of the seniors I approached declined to be interviewed or named.

One reason was that they were afraid of being the butt of jokes. Some said their adult children had objected to the marriage and they did not wish to make their children unhappy by appearing openly in a newspaper report.

So it's not just older people who think seniors shouldn't be falling in love or seeking new relationships, but younger people as well.

The ageist and entrenched attitudes towards autumn love need to change.

People are living longer, and seniors' attitudes to marriage and remarriage are changing. Like it or not, we are going to see even more older people - single, divorced or widowed - who find companionship, love and marriage in their later years.

Tomorrow's seniors will also be better educated, more affluent, more influenced by Western values, less tied to their children for support and more likely to pursue their own lives and dreams.

It is wrong to think that as people age, the need for companionship, romance or sex must only diminish. A growing number of older people are showing us that this is not so.

Research elsewhere has shown the health benefits of marriage for the elderly. Many studies have found that married people tend to stay healthier and live longer than those who are single or widowed.

For example, a 2009 study by a Michigan State University sociologist of over half a million Americans found that married people were living longer, but not widows.

This is because the emotional, financial and physical loss of support from a spouse contributes to a higher mortality risk.

Counsellors say children are often the ones who object most to their elderly parents remarrying.

Some find it hard to accept that their mother or father has a new life partner, while others view the newcomer as a threat to their inheritance.

Seniors should introduce their new partners to their children from the start, so that both parties can get to know each other, said the director of Fei Yue Community Services, Mr Leng Chin Fai.

Marriage at any age is never easy, and like younger couples, some older people may land themselves in a bad marriage.

That will be part of the new picture of love and marriage as more older people get hitched, but it should not be a reason to keep alive prejudice against late-life romance.

My relative's autumn romance rejuvenated her. Influenced by her fitness buff husband, she started running, lost quite a few kilogrammes and is radiant these days.

I am truly happy that Mr Right came round again for her when he did.

theresat@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Sept 21, 2014.
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