Falling in love is easy. Staying in love is harder. So, when we see a couple who has been together for many years – decades even – it’s easy to assume that they have a rock-solid commitment and fulfilling marriage. What’s actually going on, though, may be very different.
Senior couples, like all couples, experience relationship issues. Relationships change over time and each stage of life brings with it its own set of challenges. That being said, senior couples, despite making up the largest growing segment of the population, are generally underrepresented in couple’s counseling.
Why it’s important to seek help
The natural course of aging can place a strain on even the strongest of relationships.
- Lifestyle changes like retirement, illness, or a move can disrupt long-standing patterns of daily life. This is especially true if the changes are sudden and unexpected.
- Spending more time together in close proximity, post-retirement, can create discomfort or conflict and bring to the surface relationship problems that may have previously been unaddressed or weren’t as obvious.
- With divorce becoming more accepted, as well as changing gender roles, midlife divorce (or later on in life) is becoming more common.
- With people living longer, many seniors find themselves single again and venturing into new relationships. They’re learning how to date and be with someone new.
- Many seniors are in second or even third marriages and may be dealing with issues related to blending families or combining households.
- They may be taking on the role of caregiver for their spouse as many seniors opt for home care.
The quality of a relationship has been directly linked with overall general health and well-being. Seniors who report the highest levels of marital satisfaction tend to also report better quality of health. Conversely, those with lower levels of marital satisfaction have been found to have a greater incidence of health-related issues including heart disease.
Barriers to seeking help
There are many reasons why senior couples may find it difficult to seek help.
- Seniors have experienced several historical events that ingrained in them a feeling that they need to be stoic and endure adversity. Asking for help may conflict with their sense of independence.
- Their struggles may, on the surface, not be apparent and consequently overlooked. Many of the issues that seniors grapple with are often chalked up to “getting older.” Changes in cognition are often assumed to be “early dementia.” Being blue or feeling down is often attributed to aging. In actual fact, Centers for Disease Control actually found that rates of depression are actually lower among adults age 60 and older than for any other group of adults.
- Today’s seniors come from an era when mental health was not spoken about openly. Family members with mental health concerns were quietly sequestered or spoken of in whispers. The idea of even seeing a mental health professional may evoke negative feelings about mental health. They worry about the stigma of seeking help and may not openly share their troubles.
- Love and sex are often considered relevant only to “young people.” The fact is older adults report a healthy interest in love and sex.
- Aging is inevitable and, sometimes, the effects place a strain on relationships. It is mistakenly assumed that there is nothing to be done and that the issues of aging are just something couples have to deal with
- Changes in lifestyle and income may even make it difficult to go to therapy or afford services.
So, when senior couples are struggling, where can they turn?
Bringing the counselor to the couple
Online counseling is bridging the gap for people who otherwise might not seek help. Seniors have embraced technology in a big way and online counseling is becoming an increasingly attractive option. The couple can enjoy therapy from the comfort of their home, which can be especially important for those who have mobility or transportation issues or who live far away.
Older couples are also spared the anxiety of being stigmatized for seeking help. While it’s true that perceptions are changing, many people, young and old, still fear being judged for getting therapy. Online counseling from home affords an additional level of privacy.
For couples on a fixed income, affordability may also be a significant factor. Online marriage counseling services tend to be more affordable and flexible in scheduling.
Older couples face their own unique challenges. Counselors with a geriatric specialty understand these needs and can help them address these challenges in a way that is comfortable to them.