A gentleman of a certain age calls his woman friend, also of a certain age, and tells her to pack her bags; he's taking her away for the weekend. They arrive at the airport and she finds he's purchased two tickets for Hawaii. When they arrive in Hawaii, they go to a condo and she finds it is filled with flowers.
That is but one of the true stories that Kris Bulcroft, an assistant sociology professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and Marge Roden, a gerontologist at the University of Minnesota, discovered in their ongoing study of the dating and sexual relationships that are occurring among single people over the age of 60. The mah-jongg set, they discovered, is stepping out far more and enjoying a far greater variety of experiences and satisfying relationships than the researchers expected.
"We thought it would be very hard to find older people who are dating," said Roden. "We were very wrong about that." They found older singles clubs, and they interviewed people at senior citizens centers and people referred to them by word-of-mouth. So far they have interviewed 60 people who are widowed or divorced, most of whom are between the ages of 60 and 75, one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the country.
"There's more emphasis on quality of life and being happy than there was 10 or 15 years ago," said Roden. "There was a time when survival seemed to be enough both for them and for how society looked on older people. But now there's this shift to happiness, and along with that there's a feeling that it's very legitimate to seek out companionship, to look for people to date.
"Older people were telling us that they were dating for the same reasons younger people do -- to find a mate. But when we started examining that, we found they weren't getting married." Among the reasons, she said, are that older people know "exactly what they want and they are really hard to please." Then, she said, the problems of integrating two sets of children and grandchildren can appear too complicated. Financial considerations such as diminished Social Security payments also play a part, she said. What is not an issue, she added, is children objecting. "They're relieved to find the person has someone else to rely on.
"We were very hesitant to ask these people about sexual behavior," said Roden. "What we found is they were very anxious to talk to us about this. We felt it was that they perceived us as experts and they want to get some sort of social permission that this is not odd -- that older people would be dating and having sexual relations. When we asked people about where sexuality fell on the continuum of what they were looking for in dating, most of them talked about it as frosting on the cake. But their major motive was the companionship.
"People told us they were far less inhibited and more willing to try new things. Often their sexual relationships were far more rewarding than in the marital framework.
"We were also interested in how older people might have been affected by changes in the sexual mores of younger people. We asked if they would have done this 20 years ago and they said absolutely not. But frequently they didn't want their kids to know about their sexuality."
One woman, for example, who had a relationship with a man in her apartment building would take her cordless phone with her when she slept over three or four nights a week so her children would think she was at home if they called. Roden told of another woman who took her male friend with her on a visit to her son's home and found they could not sleep together -- even though one of his children was living with someone.
"We were amazed at how interesting their dates were," said Roden. "They have spent a lifetime developing individual differences and bring such a variety of interests to a relationship -- sailing, going down a river on a houseboat, camping, dining at the best restaurants.
"Intimacy needs are one of the strongest, enduring drives in human beings," she said. "The whole quality of life changes when there is an intimate component in someone's life. These are very important relationships; they are not trivial or cute.
"Older people, because of their experience, have an awareness that passionate love does not last . . . . Companionate love is what every relationship is going to become if it's going to last. They want someone who, over the long run, is going to be fun, happy."
For those who find it, more power to them. They're pioneers for the rest of us and making the golden years sound like a lot more fun than we might expect.