Diverging Paths In The Later Years
from Russ Mitchell


NEW YORK - More and more, the old married couple is getting a divorce. On Wednesday's Early Show, we rounded our series on Elder Romance by talking about the surprising new tendency of Americans married 35 years or more to seek divorce.

We met a 65-year-old woman whose husband recently left her after 45 years of marriage; and spoke with Dr. Gene Cohen M.D., Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University.

While divorce among people over 65 is still less common than divorce among the rest of the nation, it is becoming more common.

Why would people whose lives have become secure and comfortable think about leaving their lifetime partner?

Dr. Cohen and other experts say that as life expectancy has grown, the prospect of spending the rest of your life with someone becomes an even larger undertaking. Those who are experiencing marital trouble in their 60's and 70's may realize that sticking it out could mean another 20 years.

In the last generation or so, the stigma surrounding divorce has decreased. Women in particular now feel that they can leave a marriage without endangering their future, financial or otherwise.

Many of those who are divorcing now feel that they can survive economically on their own.

The ramifications of divorce at a later age can also be different than for younger people. Couples have had more time together to build shared social networks. In a divorce, those networks can be seriously damaged.

Financial assets may become bigger issues later in life. To the extent that parents are older, adult children may have felt secure with the terms of the wills.

If there's a divorce and then remarriage, it could be a matter of significant anxiety for adult children, not knowing what it will mean for the change in their family's structure.

Another risk of divorce at a later age is one of economic resiliency. If a person is in an uncertain economic situation, finding work after divorce to maintain a lifestyle could be very difficult.

A younger person may feel they have more time to learn something new but for older people, that isn't as much a reality. Dr. Chen says, "It's the one who doesn't want the divorce who will be very stressed if they don't have an adequate support system."

If a divorce is not pending, here are some tips Dr. Cohen offers couples (at any age) for keeping their relationships freash:

  • Help effect creative change. Each spouse alone should re-examine what they can do that's new by themselves.
  • Each person can evaluate something new to do with others outside their relationship, such as a class or a book club.
  • Couples can look at what they can do differently with themselves and what can they do differently with others. If the couple is relying too much on each other, they won't have any way of blowing off steam.

These efforts provide options for each individual in the relationship, by stressing the individual, outside of the relationship.



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