Marriage in the Golden Years
June is the traditional time for weddings in America, so it's no surprise that this month we will see plenty of heartwarming articles about elderly couples who have enjoyed a long life together and are celebrating 50, 60, 70 or more years of wedded bliss. Photos of the lovebirds show them with a big cake, surrounded by a throng of adoring children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They offer valuable advice to younger couples who are just starting out.
But the example older couples set isn't just a matter of sentiment. Many studies show that as we grow older, marriage is good for our health. People in a long-term committed relationship can have an advantage when it comes to socialization, exercise and financial well-being. And policymakers tell us that with smaller, more mobile families, more seniors will rely on their spouses for support and assistance.
Of course, marriage isn't the only source of socialization and support for seniors. Today, one-third of the baby boomers and half of Americans older than 75 are unmarried. And although Penn State experts report that people older than 50 are the fastest-growing group to take up online dating, many seniors are single by choice and loving it. They stay active and socially connected with friends, family, work and volunteering.
But research shows several interesting health-promoting aspects of marriage. Married seniors are more likely to get checkups and follow their healthcare providers' advice. Their spouse might call it "nagging," but those reminders to take care of ourselves can be very motivating! University of Michigan neurologist Dr. Vikas Kotagal recently reported that married seniors, no matter their race or socioeconomic status, are twice as likely to seek help from their doctor if they noticed signs of memory loss. Married people support each other in exercise, smoking cessation and maintaining a healthy weight. Johns Hopkins University researcher Laura Cobb urges our senior care system to "harness the power of the couple." She says, "When it comes to physical fitness, the best peer pressure to get moving could be coming from the person who sits across from you at the breakfast table."
It's important to note that these health effects also seem to apply to domestic partners and other cohabiting couples—a good thing, given that cohabitation among older adults has more than doubled in the last decade, and continues to accelerate as baby boomers age. These older couples seem to be staying together, too. Says Bowling Green State University's Dr. Susan Brown, "Perhaps the most remarkable feature of cohabitation among older adults, in stark contrast to their younger counterparts, is the durability of the unions."
Older Couples Face Challenges
It's important to recognize that the connection between marriage and health isn't a simple one. While a good marriage promotes good health, numerous studies show that a bad marriage can have quite the opposite effect. For example, Michigan State University sociologist Hui Liu reports that older couples who report being in a bad marriage are at higher risk for heart disease. Dealing with a spouse who is critical, demanding and unsupportive places stress on the heart—and the effect increases as we grow older. Says Liu, "These results show that marital quality is just as important at older ages, even if a couple has been married for 40 or 50 years."
Yet the later years and the routine course of aging can pose challenges even to the most stable, long-term unions:
- Long-established living patterns may be disrupted by illness, retirement, an empty nest, decreased income and perhaps a move to a new community.
- After retirement or a move, couples may find themselves spending much more time in close proximity. This insularity can bring to the surface relationship problems they'd previously managed to keep on the back burner.
- Changing gender roles, a greater acceptance of divorce, and even our greater longevity also have contributed to an increase in the number of "silver splitters"—a wry term for older adults who divorce after marriages of long duration.
- For the increasing number of couples today who are on their second or third marriages, elder care is complicated with stepfamily issues.
The Caregiving Role
Today, millions of Americans are providing care for an ill or disabled spouse. As their role makes a sudden or gradual shift from partner to caregiver, they find themselves focusing more and more on their spouse's health and care needs, rather than on their relationship. As reported in "Spouse Caregivers in Sickness and in Health" in the July 2014 issue of Caring Right at Home, caregiver spouses perform many tasks that could be considered medically technical—wound care, medication management and more. Some spouses report that this brings them closer together. But University of Michigan researcher Amelia Karraker says that chronic illness, physical disabilities and memory loss all raise the risk of divorce. And while having a partner to provide care support is an advantage for the ill spouse, the caregiver spouse faces a greater risk of poor health. Experts call for increased support for spouse caregivers. Families should learn about public and private senior support organizations that provide respite and assistance. Professional in-home caregivers also can perform some of the hands-on caregiving tasks, allowing the couple to focus more on their relationship and the things they like to do.
Geriatricians say that it's never too late for marriage counseling. Older couples can benefit from couples counseling, marriage retreats and other renewal programs just as much as younger couples—maybe even more! Many older couples find new spark by nurturing their relationship in this way. At any age, relationships flourish best in an atmosphere of honesty, mutual respect, and yes, romance. As they grow together and as individuals, couples are ready to better enjoy and appreciate the years to come, in sickness or in health.