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Octogenarian love isn't for the faint of heart

By Patricia Clarke

News item: Setareh, an Iranian woman in her 80s, is looking for her father. She needs his consent to marry Jamshid, an equally aged friend of her youth. “Seeing him again made my heart beat faster,” Setareh is quoted. “The passion of youth returned.”

I wondered. Among my friends in the Depends generation, would the prospect of marriage make our pacemakers turn handsprings?

On the whole, no. “You must be joking!” one said. “I’m not going to end my life looking after a sick old man.” Others agreed that any octogenarian who proposed marriage must be seeking a nurse, not a wife.

Several friends have acquired companions with whom they dine, go to the theatre, even travel. But marriage? What for? “I’m used to my own space.” “It would affect my pension.” “Family finances would be complicated.” The consensus, as one widow put it: “I don’t want a husband; I just want a nice relationship. Go out to lunch, go to movies, go for walks, go home — alone. That suits me.”

An 80-something widower with a high net worth and a low self-esteem admits he’d like to find a woman who appreciated opera, football and him, not necessarily in that order, but fears the only applicants would be “after my money.” He should know that a wife might keep him around longer to enjoy that money. A U.S. health-care agency has discovered that marriage has a positive effect on the health of elderly men. It ensures that they eat a good breakfast, keep their medical appointments and fasten their seat belts.

Sadly, as the years climb, opportunities to quicken our heart monitors fall. A recent United States census discovered that only 1.6 percent of those over 65 got married. Probably most of them were the randy sexagenarians we see in television ads romping hand in hand on Florida beaches. (Octogenarians are more often seen exploring walk-in bathtubs.) By the time we’re 85, there are five times as many widows as widowers. And those few male survivors show a discouraging attraction to younger mates.

On the other hand, there are the chimpanzees of Uganda. According to a study by anthropologist Martin N. Muller of the University of New Mexico and two others, high-status male chimpanzees prefer older females and are not turned off by — believe it — wrinkles, thinning hair or sagging breasts. This, apparently, was one of the blind alleys in evolution.

No male chimps being available to discuss the Middle East crisis, nor many human males either, we make do. One of my mother’s widowed friends met the problem of missing male conversation during dinner by eating in front of the television news. The anchors were all male, in those days. I can’t hold off on dinner until 9 p.m. when The National comes on.

And if the passion of youth does glimmer? There were rules, the first time around: no kiss before the third date; no hands below the waist; keep your legs crossed.

Times have changed and so have we. Now it’s split the cheque, make sure you have fresh hearing-aid batteries and avoid falling asleep at the table. Even if he springs for the Happy Meal at McDonald’s, he’s not likely expecting dessert. (“Your assisted living place, or mine?”)

A few will get a second chance at happiness. Let’s hope Setareh does.
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