Love and Sexuality in Later Life: What Your Grandparents are not Telling You

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In a study of dating in later life, conducted in the Midwest in the United States, in which a sample of people age 60+ were interviewed regarding their dating behaviors and perceived functions of dating at this stage in the life course, preliminary evidence suggests that middle-generation offspring took on the role of gatekeepers of sexual standards of conduct and cohabitation outside marriage. Concomitantly, the older generation displayed modified attitudes about sexuality outside marriage in keeping with the opportunity structures available to them as part of the dating experience. When this paper was published in 1986 there were few studies of later life intimacy and dating, and the focus was on the older daters rather than on extended family or social network implications of dating in later life. Since my study in the mid-1980’s, research has flourished on later life dating and intimacy, but the focus continues to be on the dyad rather than exploring intergenerational family relationships and changes that result from re-coupling in later life. This paper will explore the adult child-older parent relationship in which the older person is dating and posit research questions based on two conceptual areas and one theoretical perspective – stereotyping of older people, transmission of values across generations, and social exchange theory – on which to build future studies of intergenerational relationships. This review of the literature will assist in understanding the middle generation’s response to an older parent’s dating and courtship behavior as well as consider why conflicts about later life dating between adult children and older parents are more likely under certain family conditions. Exploration of the literature on later life dating that has resulted since our 1986 study, coupled with theoretical underpinnings, is intended to help scholars in this area of study conduct research that will be more generalizable and theory-based.

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