Antonio D’Alfonso, 66, is a believer in marriage: He wed three times and was hoping for a fourth go.
For more than a decade, D’Alfonso, a Montreal writer, has been dating a Toronto widow. The two see each other every couple of months. D’Alfonso wanted more: He proposed five times, only to be rebuffed with every try. The older woman refused to live with him, D’Alfonso said, because she wanted to travel and be free. “I have to ask, and I always ask, so what do you want from me?” he said.
The pair took a two-year hiatus, during which D’Alfonso tried dating other senior-age women only to find that they, too, were reluctant to share a home – this even as D’Alfonso said he cooks and keeps a tidy house.
“I really believe that women no longer need men, whatsoever,” D’Alfonso said. “I’m totally irrelevant.”
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D’Alfonso’s push-and-pull with his partners reflects a rift emerging between single women older than 65 and the men they date. Increasingly, these men are encountering resistance from older women who want their own lives, not a full-time relationship. While many in this generation of heterosexual, divorced or widowed women want male companionship, they don’t necessarily relish the thought of moving in with a man. Today, say researchers studying this cohort, more older women are rejecting the downsides of the live-in relationship: the co-dependence, the daily tension within close quarters and the sacrifices made keeping a home, caregiving and doing the emotional legwork to keep their unions humming. Some of these women completely forego dating while others opt for “living apart together” (LAT) arrangements, in which partners in committed relationships choose to keep separate residences.
More than 68 per cent of seniors residing alone in 2016 were women, according to the latest census data from Statistics Canada. Widowhood used to account for much of this gender disparity, with women often outliving men. Now, divorce is driving the trend: the share of separated or divorced seniors living alone more than tripled between 1981 and 2016, according to the agency. Increasingly it is personal choice – not death – that sees senior-age women going it alone, with 72 per cent reporting they were highly satisfied living on their own, according to data from the 2017 General Social Survey.
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Today, this reticence to co-habitate is driving a wedge between the sexes. Many older, heterosexual men still prefer living with a partner: among senior solo dwellers, men were significantly more likely than women to say they intended to marry or form a common law union in the future, according to the authors of a 2019 report from Statistics Canada. In heterosexual relationships where partners over the age of 65 lived apart, men often assumed they or their girlfriends would move in eventually, while women clung to the solo arrangement, enjoying their free time without responsibility for others – this, according to in-depth interviews conducted in 2013 by University of Victoria sociology professor Karen Kobayashi and Laura Funk, now an associate professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba.
For a generation of older men, traditional, live-in relationships remain important because female partners meet so many of their social, emotional, health and domestic needs, said Sharon Hyman, a Montreal filmmaker who’s interviewed hundreds of couples for her upcoming documentary called Apartners: Living Happily Ever Apart. “Women have wider circles of friends. Men don’t so they are relying on women for more,” Hyman said. “For men, often we hear it’s not as easy for them to be on their own."
A number of social factors have sent women 65-plus hurtling toward independent lives, chief among them financial independence, said David Cravit, author of The New Old: How the Boomers Are Changing Everything...Again. “They’ve had careers, they’re liberated and they’re not dependent on the guy,” Cravit said. "When they hit this age, they’re not going to revert back to being their mothers and their grandmothers.”
Older women are forging the kind of partnerships they want because society now allows different kinds of relationships, said Dr. Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at Indiana’s Kinsey Institute. Fisher, 74, lives separately from her partner of five years, calling it “a blessing.”
“I’ve got a whole social network. I like to go to the theatre, the symphony and to various lectures with friends," Fisher said. "He’s welcome to come if he wants to.”
Fisher spends three nights at her apartment in New York and the rest at her partner’s home. By this stage of their lives, they’ve both accumulated too much stuff to cram into one residence. She has an office at his house and he gets half a closet at her apartment. “It’s almost like a continual courtship," Fisher said. "The little things don’t bother you because you can go home.”
Many women resist moving in with men because they remember previous marriages and the unequal division of labour at home, said Bella DePaulo, author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. Having a place of their own, she said, offers senior-age women time to rest, think and pursue their interests, instead of feeling exhausted by the chore wars. “They want to have their own place, in their own way," said DePaulo, an academic associate in social psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
When a guy chats up 77-year-old Montrealer Rhoda Nadell at her tennis club, her brain quickly fast forwards: Dinner dates will turn into a relationship, which will inevitably find Nadell cooking, cleaning and eventually caregiving for the elderly gentleman.
“I don’t want to take care of anybody. I want to take care of me,” said Nadell, who divorced her second husband two decades ago. “You want to be friends and get together, when I say it’s okay to get together? Fine. But to be in a relationship where I have to answer to somebody else? Been there, done that, don’t want to do it again."
As these solo dwellers age, the question becomes what happens when they grow frail and need someone to lean on. DePaulo argued that those who live alone often maintain broader networks of support than married couples do, pointing to a raft of international research. Partners who live separately for some portion of the week still tend to each other in sickness, and are well-positioned as caregivers because “we have our own place to recharge our batteries and avoid the all-too-frequent caretaker burnout,” said Hyman, 57, who has lived away from her partner for 20 years.
Even so, many senior-age men struggle living alone, growing lonely because they’d over-relied on their spouse "to be their best friend and their social co-ordinator,” DePaulo said. She hopes these realities will change for men as more people delay marriage, reside alone longer earlier in their lives and learn how to thrive solo.
Montreal’s D’Alfonso is slowly coming around to the living apart setup. He re-united with the reluctant widow, realizing that although she does not want to live under one roof, she remains committed to the relationship. “I had to re-evaluate my own prejudice, my fears, my inferiority complex,” he said.
Today, D’Alfonso is reconsidering the message he’s heard from older women who no longer seek the mantle of marriage or domesticity.
“I think that what women are asking is that we understand them differently.”
Editor’s note: In Canada, 72 per cent of senior-age women reported they were highly satisfied living alone, according to data from the 2017 General Social Survey, not census data, as was earlier reported in this story.
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