LOVE LINGERS HERE: INTIMATE ENDURING RELATIONSHIPS XVIII. PLATE FIVE: SEPTEMBER SONG (GROWING OLD AND FACING MAJOR LIFE CHALLENGES AS A COUPLE)
While each of the four developmental plates we have already discussed tend to absorb the attention of couples during the early and middle years of their relationship, this final plate moves to center stage during the years when either a couple have reached their senior years (usually after age fifty five or sixty) or one or both partners face a major intrusive life event that is either life-threatening or potentially disruptive of the relationship. In either case, the partners are faced with the task of preparing for major changes in the ways they relate to one another.
During the senior years, there are dramatic shifts in life structure brought about by retirement from a job or household responsibilities. In addition, couples typically must deal with the death of their own parents during the first phase of their senior years, and, later, with the death of one of the partners or at least the extended absence of one of the partners as a result of illness or shift in role of one partner to that of caretaker for the other, newly disabled partner. Until very recently, these difficult transitional issues in the life of a couple were rarely addressed in the popular media, nor, for that matter, were they addressed in a systematic and thoughtful manner by researchers in the social sciences.
The common image has usually been one of a somewhat humorous older couple drifting off blissfully into senility. Today, we know better. We know of the challenges that many older couples face when one of the partners is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. The recent case of President Reagan has brought this challenge forcibly to mind for many Americans. In plays and movies such as The Gin Game, Love Among the Ruins, Robin and Marion, and The Whales of August we have been shown how romantic love can very much be a part of relationships among men and women in their senior years. Other plays and movies such as On Golden Pond and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner describe ways in which long–term relationships must continue to adjust in the face of ongoing problems and new realities regarding children, spouses of children, and grandchildren.