Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Dating Relationships in Older Adulthood: A National Portrait

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Dating Relationships in Older Adulthood: A National Portrait

Article excerpt

Dating in later life is likely common, especially as the proportion of older adults who are single continues to rise. Yet there are no recent national estimates of either the prevalence or factors associated with dating during older adulthood. Using data from the 2005-2006 National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, a nationally representative sample of 3,005 individuals ages 57-85, the authors constructed a national portrait of older adult daters. Roughly 14% of singles were in a dating relationship. Dating was more common among men than women and declined with age. Compared to non-daters, daters were more socially advantaged. Daters were more likely to be college educated and had more assets, were in better health, and reported more social connectedness. This study underscores the importance of new research on partnering in later life, particularly with the aging of the U.S. population and the swelling ranks of older singles.

Key Words: aging, couples, dating, gender, gerontology, social support.

A growing share of the U.S. population is unmarried, and this trend is especially pronounced among middle-aged and older adults (Kreider & Ellis, 2011). The proportion of middle-aged adults who are single has risen 50% since 1980. Today, roughly one third of Baby Boomers are currently unmarried (Lin & Brown, 2012). Among adults 65 and older, a majority is unmarried (Manning & Brown, 2011).

Unmarried older adults often form partnerships, although they increasingly do so outside of marriage (de Jong Gierveld, 2004). Cohabitation has accelerated rapidly among older single adults, who are now equally likely to form cohabiting or marital unions (Brown, Bulanda, & Lee, 2012). The rise in unmarried individuals suggests the availability of a large pool of potential partners for non-coresidential relationships, too. Dating in later life may offer many of the benefits of a close intimate relationship without the constraints entailed by coresidence. For others, dating may be a stepping stone to cohabitation or marriage.

Regardless, researchers lack a basic understanding of who dates in later life; the most recent national, empirical study on the older adult dating population was conducted more than 20 years ago (Bulcroft & Bulcroft, 1991). With the growth in single older adults, an examination of today's later life daters is overdue. The purpose of this study was to provide a national portrait of older adult daters using data from the 2005-2006 National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP).

Nearly all of the research on older daters comes from qualitative, in-depth interview studies that explore the reasons why older adults (often only women and only widows) pursue or avoid intimate relationships (Bulcroft & O'Connor, 1986; Dickson, Hughes, & Walker, 2005; McWilliams & Barrett, 2012; Stevens, 2002; Watson & Stelle, 2011). These studies illustrate the range of meanings of dating in later life. One study from the 1980s revealed that many daters were involved in serious, long-term relationships (Bulcroft & O'Connor). But more recent research has suggested that many women view dating as a social activity that provides a unique form of companionship not achieved through friendships with other women (Davidson, 2001; Watson & Stelle). These women desired a close companion but at the same time wanted to be autonomous and ultimately were not interested in a longterm, conventional commitment (e.g., marriage or cohabitation; Dickson et ah; McWilliams & Barrett, 2012).

There appear to be notable gender differences in the meanings of later life dating relationships. Specifically, men tend to be more interested than women in formalizing these relationships through marriage (McWilliams & Barrett, 2012; Stevens, 2002), although the prospect of remarriage can be stressful for older men and women alike (de Jong Gierveld, 2002). Women are often reluctant to marry, preferring instead to enjoy the companionship afforded through dating without incurring the potentially heavy caregiving burdens than marriage can entail in old age (Dickson et ah, 2005). …

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