What are you willing to do to find love, especially later ln life? How might that love differ from what you sought earlier in life?
I know something about late-life love, having married a second time at the age of 58 after 21 years of living single. When my husband and I first got together, it was thrilling. We felt like giddy teenagers. The infatuation lasted a few months, and then reality set in. As a wise elder once said, “love is blind; marriage is an eye-opener.”
If I could give one piece of advice to those seeking a partner in the second half of life, it would be this: instead of looking for someone who makes you feel young again, look for someone you can grow old with.
The Youth and Beauty Myth
A new reality series called The Golden Bachelor has been airing this fall on American television. The ABC network promotes the show as a “whole new kind of love story,” meant to inspire hope in viewers that it is still possible to find a romantic partner in your later years. So far, the show has been very popular, with the premier episode attracting 11 million viewers.
While the premise of the show is interesting, I am dismayed by how the producers depict older people looking for love.
The series involves 22 women from across the United States, ages 60-75, who are vying for the attentions of one bachelor — 72-year-old Gerry Turner, a retired restauranteur from Indiana. More than 30,000 women responded to ABC’s casting call for “active and outgoing single men and women in their golden years, ages 60 and over.” Given the odds of being selected, clearly none of the women, nor Gerry himself, are typical senior citizens.
All of them are physically beautiful. On display is a winning combination of good genes, good habits, good medical and dental care, good lighting, plastic surgery (in some cases), Botox (in many cases), hair dye, and makeup. Everyone is trim, fit, and agile. They have very little grey hair and no visible balding, bulges or brown spots. Gerry is tall and handsome, with broad shoulders, gleaming teeth, and thick, sandy hair that is just beginning to grey at the temples.
Some of the women have worked in the beauty and fitness industry. They include an aerobics champion, a retired health and wellness director, a nutritionist, a pickle ball instructor, a retired salon owner, and a “pro-aging coach” who teaches women how to be “midlife mavens.”
The message is unmistakable: if you want to find love in later life, you must look much younger than your years.
This is an idealized approach to “successful aging” that relies on the beauty myth. However, as feminist writer Ursula LeGuin observes, “The beauty ideal is always a youthful one. . .. For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones. . . It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly, it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies” (“Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts About Beauty”).
The producers of The Golden Bachelor apparently don’t think American viewers are ready to see beauty and desirability in bodies that look their age.
Besides looking young, The Golden Bachelor contestants must act young. Each week they go on “group dates” with Gerry, after which one lucky “girl” (which is how the women refer to each other) gets to go on an exclusive one-on-one date with him.
So far, the dates have included driving all-terrain vehicles in the desert, competing in a pickle-ball tournament, riding in a helicopter that lands on a yacht in the ocean, and spending an evening at a carnival on the Santa Monica pier.
Of course, this makes for entertaining television. Who wants to see what older people really do on dates? Sure, they go places and have fun, but in my experience, they also do a lot of talking – about work and retirement, family and friends, previous relationships, values and beliefs, politics, culture, and life in general.
You don’t hear any of these crucial conversations on The Golden Bachelor. And they certainly don’t talk about the future, which, after all, involves getting old.
I agree with the critic writing for The Guardian: “The Golden Bachelor is trending in relatively sparse but fertile territory. . .. But the show risks squandering the maturity and perspective that is its new greatest asset” (“The Golden Bachelor: Is America Ready for an Over-60’s Dating Show?”).
It has been 10 years since my husband and I were married. Now in our late 60’s, we are still among the “young old.” But we have seen the future, and it is sobering.
We watched both of our mothers descend into dementia, languish in a nursing home, and pass away, mere shadows of their former selves. My husband’s older brother, disabled with Parkinson’s disease, died at 78 after spending two years in a nursing home. My older brother, in his early 80’s, can’t walk more than a block because of chronic back pain; my sister-in-law navigates slowly with a cane because of a broken hip that never properly healed.
We are doing fine, but our bodies, too, are showing signs of wear. My husband has atrial fibrillation and an autoimmune disease; I have osteoporosis and cataracts. We know that people age at different rates, and at some point, one of us will likely become a caregiver to the other.
The Real Thing
It is very difficult to face these realities. A loyal partner by your side can make things easier.
To those who are looking for someone to hold their hand and walk into that sunset together, here’s my advice: Appearance be damned! Choose a person of character – someone who is thoughtful, resilient, kind, and compassionate. A good sense of humor would also help enormously.
I was lucky to marry a person like that. Our bodies don’t look anything like the ones on The Golden Bachelor, and our life isn’t anything like TV’s version of late-life love and romance. But I think we have the real thing.
We have been watching The Golden Bachelor together, shaking our heads and rolling our eyes at how the women fawn over Gerry and claim to be “falling in love” after just a few hours with him. I do admit to being curious about how this show will end. Who will Gerry choose and why?
I am even more interested in hearing what the 21 women who weren’t chosen think of the experience. Was it worth the effort and expense? Interviews with some who have left the show indicate that the biggest payoff has been the friendships they formed with the other female contestants.
In fact, two of the cast-offs are proposing an alternative to The Golden Bachelor – a modern-day equivalent to The Golden Girls, a reality show where women over 60 find love and friendship on their own terms, with or without a man.
Hopefully, the show would critique the youth, beauty and romance myths that have so constrained women throughout their lives.
I would definitely tune in to see that.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers for a local animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.