After his wife died in a traffic accident on their anniversary in 2010, life was dark for John Deurwaarder.
Less than a week later, Deurwaarder, an avid tennis player, had deteriorated so rapidly that he had to move into an assisted living facility at Vancouver’s Glenwood Place Senior Living.
“I was too weak on my feet and couldn’t stay alone anymore,” Deurwaarder said.
He struggled with loneliness, depression and poor eating habits. A reversal of fortune seemed unlikely until one day at Glenwood Place’s choir practice, he met a woman named Alta Lunsford.
“After my wife was killed, I had a difficult life until I met Alta,” Deurwaarder said. “She built me up and gave me a purpose in life.”
After a five-month courtship, Lunsford, 78, and Deurwaarder, 97, were married Saturday by Glenwood Place’s bus driver and retired pastor Carroll Myers in the retirement community’s banquet hall.
Their love story is just one example of how longer life, greater social acceptance and more evidence of the health and emotional benefits of a loving union have created new possibilities for marriage late in life.
“In the past, it would have been seen as silly or ridiculous to be in a passionate romantic situation at 65,” said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist and AARP’s love and relationships expert. “If your marriage ended, you were done. There would have been less people getting together at all.”
Today’s longer life expectancy has changed that perception.
“We are looking at very long periods of time,” Schwartz said. “If you get married at 65, you could be together for 30 years. That may seem like a long enough time to get married.”
About 1.2 percent of nearly 700 people who applied for marriage licenses in Clark County this month were 65 and older, according to a review of applications by The Columbian. Karen Updike, Clark County deputy auditor, said marriages among older people are more common during the holiday season because many want to marry when their families are already together.
A review of December marriage licenses showed that to be the case. About 2.3 percent of nearly 400 people married in December in the county were 65 and older.
Nationwide, an estimated 500,000 Americans 65 and older remarry each year, according to research by Marilyn Coleman and Lawrence Ganong of the University of Missouri.
Schwartz will soon be among them. She’s engaged at age 67. She said marriage after 65 still sometimes sparks bewilderment but not for the reasons in the past. More people now assume that older people will just live together if they want companionship.
“I think people are still a little surprised by it (remarriage after age 65),” Schwartz said. “It’s a mixture of congratulations and ‘Why are you getting married? Why don’t you just live together?'”
Many who marry do so because they have moral objections to living together; others simply enjoy the privileges and status marriage brings, Schwartz said.
Rates of remarriage after divorce and death of a spouse among all ages have actually declined because more people are opting to live together, according to research by R. Schoen and N. Standish in the journal Population and Development Review. But older people are still more likely to choose marriage over cohabitation if they choose to pair up, said Cory Bolkan, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver. That could change with aging baby boomers, who have more liberal views of sex than the previous generation.
Larry Stahl, 84, married his wife, Florence, 87, on Feb. 18. Both had been widowed after several decades of marriage.
“I know a lot of couples aren’t married,” Stahl said. “We feel it’s God’s plan we should be married.”
Research shows that a healthy marriage offers physical and mental health benefits. Unmarried people are generally at greater risk of dying at any given period than married people, according to several bodies of research, but experts also are quick to point out that the quality of the relationship is crucial.
“It’s not simply the institution of marriage itself, but the quality of the relationship, that is the best predictor of health and well-being,” Bolkan said.
Widowers and men and women who are divorced are at particular risk for cardiovascular disease compared with married people and interestingly, widows. Divorce amps up the risk for both men and women, but the death of a spouse only increases the incidence of cardiovascular disease in men, according to research by Orjan Hemstrom in 1996 in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. Married people also are more likely to have better mental health than the unmarried, according to “Social Causes of Psychological Distress” by John Mirowsky and Catherine Ross.
Unmarried people not surprisingly also are generally worse off financially and are more likely to need a paid caregiver in their last years, compared with married people who may be able to rely on a spouse to care for them.
“We have a wonderful reason why we’re getting married: We are both lonely,” Deurwaarder explained.
Now, the couple are inseparable. They share an apartment, eat similar foods and like the same activities, including singing.
“She’s changed my life,” Deurwaarder said.
Remarriage isn’t the ideal for everyone.
It may mean loss of Social Security benefits or complications with children’s inheritance, Bolkan said.
For instance, if a widow remarries she will no longer be able to collect her deceased husband’s Social Security benefits and may not be able to afford that loss of monthly income, depending on her would-be spouse’s financial situation.
Adult children may object to the marriage because they’re concerned about their inheritance or because they fear their deceased parent may be forgotten.
“My grandfather unexpectedly decided he wanted to marry his neighbor,” said Jeannine Mills of Portland’s Panache Weddings & Events. “They had raised their kids in the house next to each other as neighbors. For us, it was kind of a hard pill to swallow.” The union seemed to hint at disloyalty toward her grandmother, Mills explained.
Older couples with adult children should do some estate planning before their marriage to ensure their children will receive their inheritance, according to legal experts. That could include a prenuptial agreement or property status agreement, said Vancouver attorney Jessica Dimitrov, who specializes in estate planning and probate.
The boundaries between pre-existing assets prior to the marriage and community property acquired during the marriage can easily blur, Dimitrov explained. Without a legal agreement, there’s a risk that the estate will go to the new spouse or end up in an expensive legal battle between adult children, the new spouse and possibly the adult children of the new spouse.
Deurwaarder and Lunsford said they paid about $5,000 in attorney fees to draft a prenuptial agreement. It was the biggest drawback to getting married, Lunsford said.
“There is a perception that (a prenuptial agreement) takes the romance away or injects a bad taste in the marriage before it starts,” Dimitrov said. But it can save loved ones pain and expense later on.
Beyond those complications, remarriage may not seem too desirable to some older people.
“There’s … a saying that I’ve heard among some older women: they don’t want to be ‘a nurse or a purse,'” Bolkan said. “Consequently, they don’t seek remarriage because they may be happy with their financial independence and freedom from caregiving.”
Florence Stahl said she was content as a widow and didn’t plan to remarry.
The couple met in Kamlu Retirement Inn’s dining room.
“She said I was flirting with her with my eyes,” Larry Stahl said. They later started conversing regularly at a bench outside Florence’s apartment.
“One of the questions I asked her is if she planned on getting married again,” Larry Stahl said.
“I said, no, I didn’t intend to, but he soon changed my mind,” Florence said.
What changed her mind?
“We just clicked,” Florence said.
The couple now hold hands wherever they go and have a ritual of kissing as soon as they cross the threshold of their shared apartment at Kamlu.
“There is no disadvantage at all of getting married,” Florence said. “In fact, I think we’ve been an inspiration to people here in the complex.”
Love is ageless
Bolkan said the couple’s story illustrates that love doesn’t change much over a lifetime.
“Certainly, there are some stereotypes about romantic relationships in later life, but we should work to demystify those myths because love and dating are the same at any age,” Bolkan said. “We are social and sexual beings over the entire lifespan. Whether a teenager or a senior, the feelings of excitement and nervousness that come with dating are similar.”
That fact can be a revelation even to older people who unexpectedly find themselves in a new romance.
“The most amazing thing about all this is here I am an old lady, and I am head-over-heels in love,” said Lunsford of Glenwood. “I didn’t know old people fell in love.”