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Paul Burnett and Sue Salmela in the kitchen of their Minneapolis, MN condo.

Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

Finding love later in life

  • Article by: STEPHANIE WILBUR ASH
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • March 2, 2011 - 2:51 PM

Sue Salmela didn't date much in high school, but she was "out there" in the 1980s, joining singles clubs, writing personals ads -- and waiting weeks for a response. After being widowed at the age of 59, Salmela, who has four children, two dogs, two cats and a career as a therapist, got right back "out there."

"I really like being in a relationship," she said.

Retired businessman Jim Lindstrom, also a widower, is in his 70s and actively dating. "Maybe it doesn't mean it's a longtime relationship, but it means there is someone in your life," he said.

That's essential, according to Connie Goldman, a radio producer and author of a book on aging in America.

"The important thing that humans need, no matter what stage their life is in, is some kind of intimacy," she said.

Her 2006 book "Late Life Love," garnered press in part because it was an intimate look at an often-buried truth: that people over age 50 date, fall in love, have sex, combine households and get married -- not necessarily in that order -- just like the rest of America.

Goldman's book refutes some of our outdated images of later-life love.

"The stereotype of two old people getting together has them holding hands, walking slow and looking cute," she said. "The truth about finding a partner in later life is that there is a need inside us to care about somebody special, and to have somebody special care about you."

But she and others are quick to point out that the focus of dating changes for mature couples. Instead of looking for a partner in parenting, older people just want to have fun.

Salmela was "looking for a mate, someone who could help me with financial stuff," when she was younger, she said. When she dated later, "I was looking for companionship, someone fun to entertain me, to make me laugh."

Goldman agreed. Now 80, she was divorced for "forty-something" years before moving in with her boyfriend in Hudson, Wis.

"When you get married [young], you may think that you are going to change your partner," she said. "When you get into a late-life relationship, you don't do that anymore. You know yourself better, and you make accommodations for one another."

And that's where some older people falter, said Dr. Brian Zamboni, a clinical psychologist at the University of Minnesota's Center for Sexual Health.

He cautions that a relationship won't be rewarding if you "expect others to act or behave in a certain way because that's how your partner was, or that's how magazines or television movies portray people in courtship," he said.

There are other obstacles to later-life dating. Many people who find themselves alone may have been married -- or in a committed relationship -- for a very long time and they may be out of practice being "out there."

Zamboni recommends starting slowly, by socializing initially in group settings. "Relax. Flirt. You can do that without being on a date," he said.

A more emotionally charged issue can be dealing with family members and old friends who can't imagine you with someone else. That, said Zamboni, can make a person "feel guilty about dating."

When she started dating her current husband, Salmela said she was worried about the reaction of her previous partner's family. To her pleasant surprise, they embraced her new husband, Paul Burnett, whom she met on Match.com and married when she was 67.

Lindstrom let his adult children know up front when he was thinking about dating. "They said, 'Hey that's fabulous! You need someone in your life.'"

Lindstrom couldn't have hoped for a better response.

"I had been married for a long time and it was a nice way to live," he said. "It's more fun to be with somebody than not to be with somebody. And it's much nicer to be with the opposite sex on occasion than it is to be with your buddies all the time."

Stephanie Wilbur Ash is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

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