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ASU research reveals challenges, joys of dating later in life

Report tells stories of love, loss and freedom in dating lives of adults over age 55

Two older adults holding hands while dancing on a beach at sunset
January 16, 2024

What is romance and dating like for those over age 55? In a recent report, Assistant Professor Cassandra Cotton and co-investigator Masumi Iida in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University interviewed 68 older adults in Arizona to see what it’s like to be single, to date and to find new love in later life. 

Those interviewed ranged in age from 55 to 92. Some (28%) had a partner, but most (72%) were single. Interviews included one-on-one sessions, often in participants’ homes, and two large group sessions. 

Perspectives on singlehood

The researchers found — unexpectedly — that many of the participants enjoyed being single. They felt liberated to do what they pleased on their schedule and no longer have to attend to someone else’s needs. 

“Given the social norms and expectations around being in a couple and finding happiness in a partner, we were pleasantly surprised by how many participants described a sense of freedom about being single. Both men and women found singlehood could be peaceful, less stressful and gave them flexibility,” Cotton said. “Something that really struck us was how many women talked about this being their time to focus on themselves and live life how they wanted, often after a lifetime of caring for partners and children.” 

Some respondents, however, felt deeply unsettled by singlehood — especially those who had recently lost a partner and had been married for years. Others felt ambivalent about singlehood, as they missed having a companion but found fulfillment in daily life and weren’t looking to fill a void. 

A unique set of fears

The researchers found that dating as an older adult was complex and had a unique set of fears. The types of relationships the participants sought varied greatly, from marriage to casual partnerships or just the occasional date, but the concerns across all types were similar.

One of the most common fears was being used for money. Participants felt protective of pensions and retirement savings earned from a lifetime of working. Women were especially wary of being used both financially and as a caretaker, which they called being a "nurse with a purse.”

Other concerns included social aspects, such as having adult children live in their potential partner’s homes or being tied to dependent family members. And a few were worried about what physical intimacy would be like at their age and with a new partner, as they considered it an important aspect of a relationship. 

Embracing challenges, joys

But despite these fears, success stories emerged. A few participants were able to find compatible partners by rekindling old relationships, even as far back as high school, or meeting through common interests. Notably, age-restricted communities proved to be one of the more successful ways to spontaneously meet partners, where shared activities and interests replaced the pressure of romantic expectations.

But no matter the situation, the older adults willingly embraced the realities of finding romantic partners — or choosing to live without one. The researchers are excited that preliminary, interview-based research like this can open new paths for understanding the challenges and joys older adults face in relationships. 

“Thanks to these participants, we have a more thorough understanding of what it is like to be single, to date and to find new love at this stage of life,” Cotton said. “They have taught us quite a bit about these experiences and have demonstrated how rich and enjoyable life can be — with or without romance.”

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