Older Singles Have Found a New Way to Partner Up: Living Apart
Fearing that a romantic attachment in later life will lead to full-time caregiving, many couples are choosing commitment without sharing a home.
By Francine RussoJuly 16, 2021
About three years after she was widowed in 2016, the Chicago psychotherapist Linda Randall, then 78, felt her friendship with a widowed man turning romantic. She’d dated him in her 20s, after taking her mother’s advice to volunteer as a candy-striper so she could meet a doctor. In 2015, while her husband was alive, she’d reconnected with him as a friend. But now, considering romance with this man six years older gave her pause.
“He was not in great shape,” she said. “He’d had two heart attacks and two stents. I thought a lot about what to do.” Coincidentally, he lived across the alley from her, and they spent most nights at her apartment. After dating for more than a year, they expressed mutual love. However, when he asked to move in with her, she said no. “He was hurt at first,” she recalled, “but I said, ‘I like my space, and we’re different in how we live.’”
About six months ago when he underwent surgery and needed recuperative care, Ms. Randall, heeding his wishes and using his funds, hired a live-in caregiver for him. Until he was well enough, the caregiver walked him over to her place. Now he manages on his own with his walker and spends weekends with her when his caregiver is off. Their intimacy continues.
With greater longevity, the doubling of the divorce rate since the 1990s for people over 50 and evolving social norms, older people like Ms. Randall are increasingly re-partnering in various forms. Cohabitation, for example, is more often replacing remarriage following divorce or widowhood, said Susan L. Brown, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
These older adults are seeking (and finding) love, emotional support and an antidote to loneliness. But many older women, in particular, fear that a romantic attachment in later life will shortly lead to full-time caregiving. To avoid this role, some seek to meet their social needs solely from their relationships with family members and friends. Margaret Widuckel, a widowed nurse, 75, from Melbourne, Australia, said she sometimes misses having an intimate partner but fears she’d be drawn into caregiving. “I also see my friends with frail husbands unable to pursue their own activities, and all their conversations are about what the doctor said or didn’t say.”
As researchers study those who do partner, however, they find that increasing numbers are choosing a kind of relationship known as LAT (rhymes with cat), for “living apart together.” These are long-term committed romantic relationships without sharing (or intending to share) a home.
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“A big attraction of LAT is to avoid the potential responsibility of being a full-time caregiver,” said Ingrid Arnet Connidis, an emerita sociology professor at Western University in London, Ontario. “Women cared for their children, parents and spouse, and want to avoid getting into these traditional gender roles.”
While researchers have not yet delved deeply into the demographics of those in LAT relationships, anecdotally it seems to be more prevalent among those at high enough socioeconomic levels to be able to maintain separate households. In general, there is evidence that wealthier people who are single later in life are more likely to re-partner.
In Europe, the data clearly show that later-life LAT relationships are on the rise. Jenny de Jong Gierveld, a sociologist at Vrije University in Amsterdam, said that as early as 1995, social scientists in the Netherlands added questions to large national surveys to track later-life LAT relationships. Dr. Brown said that didn’t happen in the United States, where surveys typically ask who is in a household. Nevertheless, Dr. Connidis said, social scientists can infer that LAT is now a “popular option” in the United States and Canada. For example, the sociologist Huijing Wu of the University of Western Ontario determined that of unmarried but partnered Wisconsin residents over 50 in 2011, 38 percent were daters, 32 percent were LATs, and 30 percent were cohabiting.
Social scientists comment on the resourcefulness of these older couples, who are creating ways to enjoy the intimacy and emotional support of marriage or cohabitation — as several studies on LAT have confirmed they do — while avoiding caregiving expectations. As Dr. Gierveld and her colleagues have found, LAT partners provide mainly emotional support to each other but not hands-on care. Some couples assume some care but not full-time.
“Once they’re in that relationship,” Dr. Connidis said, “partners end up more willing to care for each other than they thought they’d be, but not necessarily to the same level as a marital partner.”
Jill Spoon, 73, and John Backe, 74, a LAT couple in New York City for nearly a decade, illustrate the complexity of this emotional bond. When Ms. Spoon, a retired administrator, and Mr. Backe, a retired pastor, met and fell in love, both were 64 and gave no thought to caregiving. Yet they opted to live in their own apartments, getting together about four times a week. Ms. Spoon, in particular, then working full-time with an active social life, wanted to maintain her independence while enjoying their intimacy.
Three years later, the issue of caregiving arose when Mr. Backe had major heart surgery and needed several months of at-home convalescent care; he moved into her apartment for those months. Ms. Spoon said she coordinated care with his two “amazing daughters,” backed up by a visiting nurse and friends, while she continued working. This teamwork is now their model for any future caregiving needs. Neither wants the other to become their primary caregiver. “I’d want John to retain as vital a lifestyle as possible,” she said, and he said he wants the same for her. She has no children but would rely on her long-term care insurance to hire help. For her partner’s care, she said, “I’d want to be involved enough because I care and love him, but not 24/7. I don’t have the energy for that,” and it would mean “I couldn’t do anything else.”
Expectations for care are lower for couples who do not marry or cohabit, social scientists said. Yet some question whether even expectations for married people are reasonable.
Allison Forti, a counseling professor at Wake Forest University, noted that some women may feel cultural and social expectations to serve as caregivers. “I think it’s important for women to know it is OK to not want to serve as a caregiver and to still hold value as women in society,” she said. Full-time caregiving “takes a significant physical and emotional toll on someone,” she noted. In a 2020 report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, 23 percent of Americans said caregiving had made their health worse.
People who want to avoid this role should discuss it early on in a new relationship, Dr. Forti said. She suggested an opening such as: “Having been a caregiver when my mother died, I want to discuss what we would do if one of us needed care.” Be prepared, she advised, that your partner may have different expectations.
These conversations should be detailed, experts advise. Each of you should state your wishes for your own care, and the financial and family resources you may have. Some alternatives to partner care include adult children, friends, paid caregivers, and one or both partners moving into an assisted living, continuing care residence or a nursing home.
Carol Podgorski, associate director of psychiatry at the University of Rochester, even suggested having a lawyer draw up documents and communicate all financial and health agreements to any adult children. Although still rare for romantic partners, caregiver agreements detailing specifics of care can be drawn up, said Tammy Weber, a Pennsylvania elder law attorney.
Ms. Randall, now 81, credits herself for creating a relationship that fulfills her needs without overwhelming her with her partner’s. “I have friends who say they never want to meet anybody unless they’re 10 or 15 years younger, because they see it as having to move in and be the sole caretaker,” she says. “I wasn’t about to do that. I think I have the best of two worlds. He’s a sweet loving man, and he brings a lot to my table.”
Francine Russo is the author of “Love After 50: How to Find It, Enjoy It and Keep It.”