At Any Age, You Need Somebody to Love

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

STANFORD, Calif. -- Don't have a date tomorrow? A San Francisco radio station jumps into the fray as Cupid's helper. Among the listeners is a recently divorced woman. The announcer telephones her and tells her on the air that she has been chosen to come into the studio and meet half a dozen great guys, among whom she will pick her valentine. "It's about the future . . . about hope . . . love," he booms. "It's all about love," the woman wails. Yes, continues the announcer: "Love . . . marriage . . . and, uh, baby carriage!"

But first, how about a box of chocolates!

It's hard to resist valentine fever, even when you're on Social Security. You are never too old to fall in love or to get married -- but graying veterans of amorous campaigns know better than to fall for this once-a-year mating mystique. After all, experience is an advantage in the pursuit of love.

"Valentine's Day sucks," says Jane Juska, 73, a former schoolteacher in Berkeley, Calif. "This notion of romantic love attached to things we have to buy -- champagne, chocolates, lingerie -- is perpetuating the superficial," continues the author of "Unaccompanied Women: Late-Life Adventures in Love, Sex, and Real Estate."

Not that older men and women don't seek love or enjoy the courtship of candlelight dinners. But there's a difference between passionate love -- the vital, intimate connection with another -- and valentine fever's hazy hallucinations of happy forever after with a blind date and a bouquet of roses.

For Juska, the hard realities of passion are preferable to fuzzy dreams of romantic utopia. Five years ago, she placed a personal ad in the New York Review of Books saying: "Before I turn 67, I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like." The ad drew hundreds of responses, and Juska set out on her journey to find the perfect lover. She found several and described her exploits in an earlier book, "A Round-Heeled Woman." Since then she has become something of an expert on the passion-driven life.

"Passion is a desire to live fully," she says. It's a decision not to sit on the sidelines of life. "You give up passion and you give up life." Divorced more than 30 years ago, Juska raised a son from that marriage and is now a grandmother. Her only regret is that she didn't place the ad when she was 50.

It is never too late to discover -- or reawaken -- your passionate self. Juska learned she could hold her own in conversation with those very bright and sophisticated men who answered her ad -- and she could hold her own in bed as she explored the many ways to give and receive pleasure.

She also got her heart broken. "That's why Cupid has an arrow," she quips. Two of her lovers continue to be friends. But she flipped over a man who was decades younger. Then came the "Dear Jane" e-mail telling her that he had gotten married! Now they, too, are friends, their grand passion reduced to tea and cookies, discussions of Kafka and warm memories.

"You're going to have to take the pain with the pleasure," she says. "It's enriching. Even in the throes of abandonment, you know that you are richer than you were when you went in." This richness to late-life love is not accessible to the young, she points out. Everywhere, it seems, the young are Doing It -- on TV, on the beach, in middle school, but "without tenderness, without patience, without empathy or longing, without kindness or the generosity that comes with age," she writes in "Unaccompanied Women." "It takes years to learn how to be grateful and at the same time gracious" in loving relationships.

The combination of graciousness and gratitude may be why older men and women have the advantage in love -- all kinds of love, from the passionate encounter to a long-lasting marriage. This richness, which is rooted in empathy and patience, also bodes well for those who decide to get married in the second half of life -- when the valentine script of "baby carriage" involves integrating children and grandchildren from previous relationships.

For Ron Browne, 63, of Cleveland, the arc of Cupid's arrow was slow but sure. The sexual spark glows, but it does not dominate the way it did in younger years. "We are still sexually driven, but not to the same extent. We have the experience of life decisions that we regret. So we're careful," he says. Age can make us love-smart -- not so vulnerable to those sudden, swept-away passions of youth that fade in the morning light.

Browne, who works in the field of aging, met a woman at the annual conference of the American Society on Aging. They shared common ground: careers in gerontology, a love of Beethoven, physical activities from long-distance running to Pilates. Conversation was the aphrodisiac. Over many months, they came to know each other, trust each other, even as they lived in different states. "We like to say we fell in love on the phone," he jokes. And now they plan to marry.

"To build a life together in the second half looks a little different. We're not distracted by having kids. We're both settled into careers," he continues. "We're wiser. We are more life-experienced." In the process of courtship, they have melded their two communities: "We like each other's friends, each other's families," he says.

And this is another key to loving as we get older. Researchers point out that we don't just need one person to love, but a circle of loved ones. These are people you cannot imagine your life without: spouses and partners, friends and family members -- an inner core of beloveds who make up your community over a long life.

The optimum number is about 10, according to psychologist Laura Carstensen, director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University.

So I think about all the ones I love. This Valentine's Day, I am sending out 10 cards and plan to rejoice in the richness of love's bloom in the second half of life. ยท

Health columnist Abigail Trafford is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University's longevity center.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company