Loving Our Aging Mates
When marrying, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will
be able to converse well with this person into your old age? Everything
else in marriage is transitory. Friedrich Nietzsche
One of the positive aspects of our cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest was
the chance to meet a delightful older couple. Bunny and Ted celebrated
their sixtieth anniversary while we were on the river. They were proud
of having escaped from their assisted living facility for the event.
Every evening they entertained the passengers with tales of their early
lives together. (Bunny had been an internationally acclaimed tennis
player. Ted had been an engineer.) Their laughter was contagious.
Though Ted had a heart condition and a slight limp, they were the first
on the dance floor. When Ted got tired, he would stand in place swaying
his hips to the music. Bunny would do the moving and jumping for both
Watching Bunny and Ted, I got the impression that when they looked at
each other, they saw their younger selves. Perhaps it was the way they
flirted, like young adults on a first date. Or perhaps it was the
laughter that emanated from their table when no one but the two of them
were present. Or perhaps it was the care each took in their person and
dress. He always wore pressed slacks and a blazer. She wore colorful
skirts that swirled when she danced and shoes with a slight heel.
In an ideal marriage between two aging partners, they dance together
gracefully; two separate organisms moving as one. Both bring energy to
the dance. Though their arms are entwined, neither is holding up the
other. Their limbs move in tandem and of their own accord. If one
wants to boogie, the other is up to it. If one wants to waltz, the
other is willing. They move through their advancing years mutually
supportive and yet capable of standing and twirling on his or her own.
She teeters when he totters and he teeters when she totters. I am
confident Bunny and Ted will continue dancing “as long as they both
Marriage Vows. “Will you have this man(woman) as your lawful wedded
partner, to live together in the estate of matrimony? Will you love
him(her), honor him(her), comfort him(her) and keep him(her) in sickness
and in health; forsaking all others, be true to him(her) as long as you
both shall live?”
These standard wedding vows have a glaring omission. They fail to
include a reference to aging. Knowing what I know now, I would change
the vows to read... “comfort him (her) and keep him (her) in age as
well as youth, and in sickness as well as health; forsaking all
When we are young and invulnerable, we don’t really worry about
getting sick. We certainly don’t dwell on aging, and how it will
affect our relationship. If we did, we might pause a moment before we
promised to be true “as long as you both shall live.”
Eos, the goddess of the dawn, fell in love with a mortal noble named
Tithonus. So great was her love that she pleaded with Zeus to grant
Tithonus immortality. Zeus agreed. The two lovers cavorted happily
through life for years until it became apparent that Tithonus was aging.
Eos realized too late that she had neglected to ask Zeus for eternal
youth for Tithonus.
The day came when Tithonus could not longer keep up with her, physically
or mentally. Instead of a source of passion, he became a drag on the
perpetually young immortal. Finally, she resorted to the putting him in
the equivalent of a nursing home. Though he no longer recognized her
and bore no resemblance to the mortal she had once loved, Eos felt
compelled to visit every Sunday for all eternity.
As Eos learned, it can be very difficult to love an aging mate. As age
took its toll on her lover, he lost his energy and his optimism and
finally his sanity. He became like a child, babbling nonsense. He was
stuck for all eternity at the negative pole of the Stargazer. At least
he was laughing. Many aging mortals become consumed with fear and
dread, and begin to approach life with the mindset of the Castaway
caught at the negative pole. They become perpetual victims, or wounded
wimps, passively awaiting the next disaster.
Still others get angry at the loss of youth and all it represents. They
lash out, punishing even those they profess to love. David and I were
visiting Alan, The Old Man on a Swing, in New Haven hospital after his
heart surgery. As we were walking toward his room, we heard a man
shouting obscenities. “Fuck you, Amelia. Fuck the doctors. They
don’t know a damn thing. I’ve had it with all of you. Fuck. Fuck.
We stopped and watched as a well-dressed woman in her late sixties
hurried out of the room, clutching her chest and sobbing. She took
refuge in a corner where she tried to compose herself. A nurse
approached and said, “Mrs. Wilding, this will pass. Your husband is
just frightened. He’s trying to convince himself he’s still in
control. Men often react like that after a heart attack.”
Wiping her eyes, she said, “You don’t know Henry. He’s not going
to get over it. He’s paying the price for too many expensive cigars,
too many glasses of fine cognac, and too many late nights carousing.
Now he’s taking it out on me. Sometimes I really think I hate him.”
She put her hands to her face, and began to weep again.
I imagined Amelia Wilding going home alone that night, and digging out
her wedding album. As she flips through the pages, trying to reconnect
with herself as that smiling bride in the arms of her handsome groom,
she asks herself over and over, “What happened?” Maybe she also
asks, “What can I do? What should I do?”
“Maybe I should divorce him,” she says to herself as she takes a sip
of wine. She sighs, “I can’t do that. He might never get out of
the hospital. He might die,” she tells herself, aware of her
ambivalence. “And if he gets better, what then?” She raises her
glass again. “We probably don’t have enough money to live two
She opens another albums filled with photos taken when they took a
cruise down the Nile. “And even if we did have the money, I don’t
have the physical or emotional energy to separate and to then establish
a whole new life.” I imagine her closing the album, sighing and
saying to herself, “I have no choice but to take whatever Henry dishes
Excerpted from "The Hourglass: Life as an Aging Mortal" by Pamela Cuming. Copyright © 2016 by Pamela Cuming. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.