A 67-year-old widower who lives in Old Town, met a woman who is divorced and 65 on eHarmony. Both were looking for someone their own age who was healthy, active, attractive and interested in a relationship. Now a couple, they hike and bike together in Rock Creek Park and Great Falls. They enjoy traveling, and before the coronavirus pandemic, were planning to go to Italy this summer. They’ve been together for a year and divide their time between her place and his, but they do stay together during COVID-19. They say that they couldn't imagine being alone and socially isolated.
Even during the current coronavirus pandemic, the need for healthy human emotions like intimacy has not disappeared, particularly for seniors.
“Many folks, particularly those who live alone and have been practicing physical distancing as encouraged by the CDC, are experiencing feelings of depression, isolation, and cheerlessness,” said Carolyn Lorente, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at Northern Virginia Community College and a private practitioner.. “Sure, staying in your own bubble in your house is the best way to protect yourself from the virus, but the negative impact of [depression and isolation] is real too.”
The lack of positive social connections, which is linked to physical and mental illnesses, has increased during COVID. In fact, 43 percent of adults aged 60 or older, report feeling lonely, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences pandemic, particularly by those who are widowed or divorced.
While seniors are often reluctant to use online dating services, this year’s pandemic has made finding meaningful companionship a priority, says Barbie Adler, Founder and President of Selective Search, a matchmaking firm.
“The restrictions and safety precautions put in place by the pandemic has allowed relationships to evolve at a slower pace,” Adler said, a pace older people are more likely to be comfortable with. “Our couples are forming strong bonds over Zoom wine tastings, book discussions, sharing past travel mementos and planning future adventures, and venturing out for picnics in the park,” she said. “Without overbooked schedules and quick dinner reservations, clients are recognizing their own desire to connect, and are enjoying the process of getting to know someone. The first date-second date-third date playbook is no longer obvious."
The need for romantic and even sexual relationships persist during COVID, says therapist and former geriatric nurse Barbara Rubenstein, LCSW-C. “Many people might be surprised to know that 57 percent of adults over the age of 60 are sexually active,” she said. “Obviously chronic illnesses, which increase as a person gets older, can affect that figure, but I would say that sex, when practiced safely, will have a positive affect on the mental and possibly physical health of seniors.”
Older adults have a higher risk of serious COVID-19 complications, and safety measures are critical. But wearing a mask and maintaining a 6-foot distance is a likely obstacle to romance at a certain point.
“COVID-19 is not a sexually transmitted disease, [but] it is spread through respiratory droplets when someone with the virus coughs, sneezes or talks,” said Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, M.D., Division Director of Epidemiology & Population Health for the Fairfax County Health Department. “It can be spread by touching someone's eyes, nose and mouth.”
While researchers at the Mayo Clinic encourage abstinence among seniors who are a greater risk for a serious illness because of pre-existing medical conditions, Lorente believes in creating a healthy balance.
“Moving toward intimate connection requires trust, the ability to be vulnerable, and the courage to try something new. However, during a pandemic, these are the very things that we are encouraged not to do,” she said.
It’s possible to maintain a romantic and intimate relationship while also maintaining a safe social distance. “Many of my older clients are also quite comfortable using technology such as Zoom and Facetime to connect too,” Lorente added. “I've been doing talks over Zoom where people can attend and meet and are way more intimate than let's say a big lecture hall. Interestingly, we may see a move toward longer courtships in order to build trust, which may be really fun.”
In fact, those video conferencing platforms allow partners to dress up and go on virtual dates, watch movies or listen to music together. “I have encouraged my clients that physical distancing is not social distancing,” added Lorente.
“I have a client in her mid-sixties who lives by herself,” Lorente said. “Last session I was checking in with her, worried about possible isolation. She sounded energized.” The client had just finished playing a game of bocce ball in the morning with her new friend.
The Maryland-Virginia-Washington, D.C. region is a prime location for those who are looking for love. In addition to an abundance of activities that can be done safely, it has more single seniors than anywhere else in the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60-percent of seniors in this are unmarried.
“Right now there are many places that you can go to be outside and still physically distanced,” said Lorente. “Try renting individual kayaks, bike riding, even making a picnic and finding a nice park to eat and talk. The D.C. area has many terrific trails to take an afternoon hike.”