Gravity has a lot going for it. It is a force for good – it keeps our feet on the ground, and enables us to sit in chairs, to lie in bed and even to keep our food down. We normally wouldn’t want to do without it.
In later life, however, it can be a force for bad. When you combine its pervasive presence with increasing human frailty, the power to resist it diminishes as we age. You then have a recipe for that ubiquitous later life event – a fall. Falling to the ground is one of the greatest fears of people in their years of fragility. It is also a common cause of death.
Apart from the use of artificial aids, the fear also leads to all sorts of body defences or personal risk management, such as a preference to sit down or to shuffle with smaller and smaller steps to ensure both our feet are grounded at the same time as much as possible. Poignantly, in what is, perhaps, more ergonomic than erogenous, it can even rekindle a relationship when older couples start holding each other up as they ambulate or promenade together. They become each other’s walker.
While falling to the ground is not good for you and gravity can be your enemy, is all falling bad for you? What about falling in love? Is it bad for you and your health? After all, at its most basic definition, gravity is when one object attracts another. The earth attracts each one of us and because its gravity is much larger than our own, it wins.
Falling in love is not usually fatal. In fact, at any age, it can be very beneficial to our health, well-being and self-esteem. For older people, much has been written in the media recently about one insidious cause of ill health – loneliness. It can lead to depression and, ultimately, death. Indeed, so significant does the UK Government perceive the ravages of loneliness that it recently created a new Government ministry – the Minister for Loneliness.
Families tend to have a less supportive view of their single mum or dad falling for someone in later life. This is can derive from a Neanderthal psychosis – “not at their age!” Alternatively, they can take on the default position of the family moral police, upholding their parents’ fidelity, forgetting perhaps that crucial part of their original marital vows – “…till death do us part”.
Others are just plain suspicious and smell a rat. They ask themselves – is it love or larceny? When an elderly man woos their elderly mother and if there is a big wealth discrepancy between them, children can often be blind to the new bright lights in their mother’s eyes and the smiles they haven’t seen for years. The children tend to see the overtures of the man as those of a lothario more interested in a financial investment than an emotional one. Not only that, a certain fear of inheritance disappointment lingers in the background of their thoughts.
It is true that this latter scepticism is not entirely without foundation. I once had a client whose mother was in a nursing home suffering from early stage dementia. She had been befriended by another male resident and the relationship was blossoming. Her mother was quite wealthy and he was quite poor. His son spotted an opportunity. Believe it or not, having made all the prior arrangements and put all the paper work together in anticipation, one day he arranged to take them both on an ‘outing’. They were taken straight to a marriage celebrant who, without any questions, promptly married them. Later that day he returned them to the nursing home for their ‘honeymoon’. The sting in this tale is that the mother had not made a Will. That meant if she died before her new husband, he (and ultimately his son) would share in her estate. My client was apoplectic and wanted to sue anyone that moved, including marriage celebrant.
That is an exception. As a matter of health and happiness, later life relationships for single older people in whatever format can be the best thing since Adam and Eve. The trick for adult children is to accept that and not to charge towards imposing an age of prohibition on their parents or to become their mum or dad’s ‘jail house keeper’. That will require a number of things, namely to:
- Suspend their disbelief that this should not be happening
- Ignore their fear of loss of inheritance
- Appreciate that, provided they understand what they are doing, their parents have rights and it is a matter for them to decide how they want to live in later life
There is nothing wrong with a sense of scepticism. That can be met by trying to subtly monitor your parents’ activities as much as you can, and they will allow.
In the end, our parents’ happiness in later life should perhaps not be defined by the forces of physical gravity but more by the forces of emotional levity.
In my next article I will deal with that most significant and vexing issue on this subject, both for adult children and others such as nursing homes – the mental capacity for ageing parents to engage in a later life relationship or can people with dementia fall, and be, in love?
I can’t wait to read it.