Love after 50 still going strong

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Connie George

Love and romance are such ageless, timeless concepts that even some primitive cave drawings have been found depicting courtship and the connection of hearts.

Here in the 21st century, those sentiments are as alive as ever and — surprisingly for some — particularly so for the over-50 crowd.

Advances in healthcare are keeping our bodies and minds in better shape for longer than ever before. And changes in relationship protocols mean there are more opportunities as we age to develop the sorts of connections we want and need.

Author Suzanne Braun Levine, a nationally recognized authority on women and family issues, has studied the relationship dynamics of men and women over 50.

“For the first time, we’ve got another 25 years of productivity,” Levine said in reference to our longer, healthier life spans. Many people entering this period of life think, “that’s as long as my first adulthood! But you can grow up again and make new choices and experience life differently,” she said.

Levine, 70, who was the first editor of Ms. magazine and produced the Peabody Award-winning documentary, “She’s Nobody’s Baby: American Women in the Twentieth Century,” has recently published a book on the subject of sex after 50.

How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood was released in December and reveals Levine’s findings from studies of women throughout the United States who are finding their own pathways through later-in-life love.

In an interview with the Beacon, Levine said whether single or coupled, both men and women tend to enter a “fertile void” right after 50, where they experience a period of confusion over what the future may hold for their most intimate bonds.

Her book describes scenarios as varied as involvement with multiple partners at once, choosing a solo life with only-platonic companionship, rebuilding intimacy with a lifelong partner, reconnecting with a long-ago love, and testing the waters in a same-sex union.

 Along with what she described as a “mellowness” that comes with experience, we love more deeply and with less judgment later in life, meaning that our romantic relationships are more honest and appreciative.

While that tingle, the spark, the click when two people connect doesn’t disappear with maturity, Levine reported that “The ‘new intimacy’ goes well beyond physical chemistry.”

Here are some local examples of the diversity of experience and “new choices” Levine talks about in her book.

Happy doing it her way

Married for 54 years from the age of 18, Palm Desert resident Billie Sieg felt an unexpected sense of freedom following her husband’s death in 2001.

“I had never been free,” she said. “I went from living with family, right into marriage. Some women might find [widowhood] horrifying, but I found it welcome. It was a chance to make my own choices.”

She acknowledged that she felt emotionally rocked during the first year after her husband passed. She didn’t date for three years, instead filling her life with friends. “I just thought my life was over, I guess, but I had the support system that didn’t make me lonely.”

But over time, drawing on interests in feminism and self-improvement that she and her husband had shared, Sieg began to learn who she was as an individual.

Eventually, on a cruise with friends, she met a new man and entered what she described as her “first adult love affair” since she and her husband had first met each other when they were kids.

The new relationship lasted until her new partner’s death nearly four years later, and she has continued dating. “You learn so much from each different person,” she said.

Now 84, Sieg has met a variety of men through singles groups, a dating service and online social networks, spending time with men of many ages and making some new frie

nds in the process as well.

But she is holding onto her contentment as an individual, she explained, and waiting for just the right match. “Even though I am still hoping to find Mr. Right for the end-of-life, I am happy. Like in the song, I’m ‘doing it my way.’”

Meeting in a singles group

Ben Cusumano, 84, met Bonnie Paul, 66, nearly two years ago in a singles group that gathers weekly at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert.

Cusumano said he hesitatingly joined the group for a dinner outing one night and found himself seated next to Paul. Both had been widowed after long, happy unions, and the two quickly discovered a number of common interests, including dancing, music, live theater and travel.

A veteran of three marriages and many years of dating, Cusumano said he was more jaded about the prospect of becoming involved with a new partner, but that Paul’s openness and exuberance captured his attention.

Because she’d been married since the age of 18, “I had never really dated or kissed anybody else,” Paul said about entering the dating field after her husband died. She kept herself busy with friends, work and hobbies for a couple of years before joining the Joslyn singles, where five weeks later she met Cusumano.

The couple said that their experience with finding love at a later age, along with observations of other older adults in similar situations, has shown them that romance feels just as good as in their earlier years, but that dating moves a little faster.

“Your heart glows when you’re younger and when you’re older,” Cusumano said. “When you’re younger, you know nothing. You grow with your age and with the experience of your life.” That experience means that an older couple can move through the phases of dating with more certainty about what each of them wants, he added.

“After you’ve been married and then you find someone else after you’ve lost your spouse, it doesn’t take as much time to go through all those dating steps,” agreed Paul. She said she feels the same romantic spark with Cusumano that she did when she was newly married. “I get those tinglies all over again,” she said.

Cusumano and Paul said that, like Sieg, they also appreciate the independence of older adulthood. As a result, they have no plans to marry. Cusumano will maintain his home in Rancho Mirage while Paul maintains hers in Palm Desert, in support of each other’s privacy and individuality.

Old expectations, new protocol

Sandy Goodman, 76, coordinates the weekly gatherings of the Joslyn Center Singles. The Palm Desert resident said she’s observed that, in many ways, romantic dynamics and expectations among older adults who are seeking partners hasn’t changed much since high school.

“Men crave attention as much as women crave companionship, and the men are just as afraid as the women,” Goodman said.

Yet, she added, the increased self-knowledge that comes with age, along with changes in the rules of dating, affect the over-50 dating process. “You get to do more by yourself” as an independent older adult, Goodman said, while she acknowledged that many still grow tired of eating alone.

One development she’s seen benefiting the singles in her group is that modern dating protocol has helped equalize the playing field. “It’s okay for a woman to call a man now,” she said, “where it used to be only the man’s right or responsibility.”

But the Joslyn group, whose members range in age from early 60s to mid-90s, also provides companionship for those not necessarily seeking a new partner, Goodman said.

Beverly Dinger of La Quinta said “I’m just as happy being by myself, actually, but it’s kind of lonely. I think you need a partner, but it’s got to be the right partner.”

Oz Osmanson said he’s just seeking friends, “not something super serious. Not at 83 years old.”

Single in the post-AIDS era

As an older, single gay man, Bill Parrish has weathered major changes in the dating scene, which he has come to think of as “before AIDS and after AIDS.”

Emotionally, he said, his mindset is as free and open as it was before the danger of AIDS became ever-present in the gay male culture in the 1980s. Yet, he added, his innate disinterest in promiscuity is not only why he believes he has eluded the disease, but also what drives the way he seeks a serious relationship.

Having turned 60 in December, the Cathedral City resident said he is aware his age makes him an older man on the dating scene, but that his emotions, mindset and energy feel unchanged from when he was in his 30s and 40s. He listens to current pop music by such artists as Pink and Lady Gaga, and is involved in planning the high-spirited parties he and his friends enjoy during games of the San Francisco 49ers football team.

Single, but looking, since relocating to the valley from San Francisco in 2010, Parrish said he usually finds himself drawn to men in their 40s because they match his interests and energy level. He dislikes the bar scene and instead hopes to meet a partner through activities such as dining, outdoor desert excursions and sporting events.

Yet he has also become aware of a calming of his soul as he’s gotten older. “I love my quiet time and laying under the stars and looking up,” he said. He has found other men his age or older to be set in their ways, “but there’s nothing wrong with that — I’m set in my ways, too.”

Balancing the optimism of his youth with his older wisdom is something Parrish admits he is still processing.

“At every age you think you’re on top of the world and that you know yourself,” he said. “But then the life lessons come up and you really get to know yourself…At the root of things,” Parrish said, what he seeks most is not only a life partner, but also “a true friend.”

New emotional and sexual paths

According to Levine, learning more about our selves after 50 involves not only discerning our desires and independent priorities, but also our limitations. “As you can learn to say ‘no’ and know your boundaries, that’s when you begin discovering yourself,” she said.

In addition, learning more about our selves can lead to having more control over the direction of our lives, she explained, “and this can lead to more sexual confidence and satisfaction.”

Sometimes this journey leads down new emotional and sexual paths as relationship interests change and new options become available, Levine said.

After being married to men, two women, Chris Hansen and Carla Umbehocker, found a soul match in each other when they became involved in 1999.

The couple described the evolution of discovery that led them to realize their upbringings did not match their romantic destinies.

“I think as a teenager there were lots of expectations,” said Hansen, 58. “You graduate, get a job or go to college, you get married. But then I think self-realization and self-awareness are allowed to kick in.”

“You just gather lots of information through life and you put it together to move on in the direction you’d like to go,” added Umbehocker, 56. “A lot of that is about who you are — not to live up to others’ expectations, but to live up to your own.”

The women relocated from Washington state to Palm Springs in 2008 and wed during the five-month legal window of same-sex marriage that year.

Long-term love

According to Levine, another development in loving, older partnerships is that, no matter how long they have known each other or how many experiences they have shared, the individuals involved become more aware of the need to show appreciation for their partners — to let them know that they are valued for their unique personalities and characteristics.

This genuine opening of the heart can re-ignite long-time relationships as well as help new unions begin on a more fulfilling footing.

“We come to this stage of life with very different perspectives,” Levine said. “We need to adjust and tune in to the different needs and interests of our partners.”

Sieg observed this dynamic in her marriage of more than five decades. “When you’ve been married a long time, you both change,” she said. “You sort of grow up, but you can grow apart in a lot of ways.”

Umbehocker said she came to the same understanding after she turned 50. “I didn’t realize as a younger person that you still need to date as a couple. It’s where you let that person know how you feel about them in their own love language — because everyone has their own language.”

“Always tell each other when you have a wonderful relationship,” Cusumano said of what he has learned about older-age love. “Say ‘I love you,’ touch each other, say ‘I care for you.’”

According to Parrish, opening one’s heart to share honest affection is an act of loving maintenance for valued relationships. “Be kind to yourself and others,” he said. “It doesn’t cost anything but some time.”

Connecting — or reconnecting — with a partner in our later years can be more meaningful and more grounded than in our youth, according to Levine. “You really can go forward as two complete people who have overlapping and separate interests and commitments,” she said.

“Being in love knows no age limits. The kinds of love we can experience in a lifetime are limited only by our imagination and our circumstances.”

Suzanne Braun Levine’s latest book, How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood, is published by Viking Adult.