Truly madly deeply: a late-life affair

April 15, 2013
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Not for the first time I’m getting love lessons from an 85-year-old. And it’s not the quiet, companionate kind of love she’s talking about. My old family friend has fallen passionately, unquietly, obsessively in love, and she doesn’t mind telling the world.

She is surprised to be grabbed by love at her age but her sons, in their late 50s, are amazed. Nothing prepares the younger generation for their parent’s mad love affair; not when their parent has lived out a decade of unremarkable widowhood, and before that almost 50 years of stolid marriage. Not when their parent is 85 for heaven’s sake. You tend to think, with the hubris, the ignorance of youth and middle-age, that there’s a cutting off point for falling in love. And if your own love-life is on the rocks, if you’re trawling haplessly through internet dating sites, you might feel, if not disgusted, then annoyed, even jealous.

At the hairdresser’s, leafing through magazines, you might have come across an article about old people – nursing home residents perhaps – getting married. But maybe you thought, as I once did, it’s for the sweet companionship, for the comfort. You didn’t think it was because they couldn’t bear to be apart from each other, not even for five minutes, because their heart leapt when the other came into the room.

This is how my family friend talks. She hates it when he goes; she’s aflutter when he arrives. To the uninitiated she looks like a little old lady. But the heart, it turns out, is ageless. She is euphoric; even her voice has changed. “I only wish I could give you some of my happiness,” she says. At 81 he’s “very fit”, she tells her friends; he’s her soul mate.  It was at the retirement village’s bingo night that he formally told the other residents they were in love. He kissed her in front of the assembled players; then he took her home. Two weeks later he hasn’t left.

I’m no longer amazed at the love affairs of elderly people. My dear, departed father-in-law when he was falling in love in his mid-80s told me he felt like a youngster. “The touch of her hand sends me crazy,” he told me. His son didn’t know where to look. “It’s the same feeling I had in my 20s. I didn’t think it could happen again,” he said, “but it has.”

This is the man who had given us lessons in the other kind of love – the patient, devoted, enduring kind. He had nursed through 15 years of dementia the only woman he had ever loved. When his wife died, women with casseroles and caresses came. His indifference was total till lightning struck, chemistry fizzed, the thrill of mutual heart-pounding attraction hit – in church no less – where the sweet 80-year-old dispenser of bibles slipped him a note.

Gazing upon these octogenarian lovers, we can learn some lessons about love. In their happiness and years, they are so uninhibited. Their love is coloured by a sense of urgency. There’s no time to waste. There’s a wonderful Paul Cox film called Innocence. A couple falls madly in love in their 70s. The woman is unhappily married. When her husband learns about the affair he thinks his wife is mad and needs a psychiatrist.  It’s impossible to fall in love at 70, he tells his adult son. But the couple feels “love becomes more real and fulfilling the closer you come to death.”

Perhaps some adult children wish their widowed parents might live out their last years in quiet dignity, not shot through with giddy passion. Perhaps some worry about the inheritance, gold diggers, Lotharios. Perhaps some urge their parent to show more caution instead of revelling in this ‘to-hell-with-them-all’ abandonment. But surely we should wish them well. What a lesson they’re teaching us – we’re never too old to fall in love.

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