Friday, June 14, 2024

Relationships: The Elixir To Healthy Aging

Now is the perfect time to reinvent and revitalize relationships across the spectrum – with life and romantic partners, family, friends, colleagues, other generations and, most important of all, yourself

“A good relationship is the single best recipe for good health and the best antidote to aging that anybody has ever come up with,” says Dr. Sue Johnson. 

The Canadian clinical psychologist, best-selling author and academic is speaking by phone from British Columbia. She says that we used to think of relationships as “the icing on the cake” rather than a health imperative, such as brushing our teeth. “Everyone knows if you don’t do that your teeth are going to fall out,” she says. 

More and more hard data demonstrate the benefits of good relationships. They boost our immune systems, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of dying from cancer. There is also evidence that social isolation can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study by health insurer Cigna found that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This is just the tip of the iceberg of emerging empirical evidence.

The good news is that Boomers have unprecedented opportunities to reinvent and revitalize their relationships, including with their life partners, friends and – most importantly – themselves. By doing so, they are not only improving their lives today, but positioning themselves for a healthier future, both physically and mentally. 

The power to change relationships

It is easy to become discouraged by news of so-called Grey Divorce. The 50-and-older demographic is the only one in which divorce is on the rise. “You don’t have to accept this stuff about how you fall in love, you fall out of love … that’s just the way it is,” says Johnson. “That’s all rubbish.”

In fact, as we age, along with opportunities for renewed joy and pleasure, life also comes with new challenges, and people become more aware that they need loving support from others. In her work with older couples, Johnson sees a growing desire to make their relationship a place where they can be a team against life stresses. Couples are less emotionally reactive than when they were young, and depend on each other more. “You can shape and you can deliberately craft your relationship,” Johnson says. But we need more public awareness and education about how to do this, she points out.

For instance, sometimes a crisis creates an opening for a couple to invest in their relationship in new ways. Johnson and her colleagues developed a relationship education program called Healing Hearts Together, attended by couples after one has had a heart attack. Couples learn how to change destructive patterns, some that have developed over a lifetime. A small example: A wife asks her husband, “Did you take your pills?” The husband responds: “All you do is remind me that I am sick.” Once they learn to tap into their emotions – the woman’s fear, the husband’s vulnerability – couples can pull each other closer in a way that creates safety and intimacy. Johnson says that those whose relationship goes downhill after a heart attack are more likely to skip their pills, health appointments and exercise routine. “The best predictor of whether you have another heart attack, and how long you live, is not the severity of the first attack,” Johnson says. “It’s the quality of your most intimate relationship.”

A recent research review of 34 international studies involving more than 2 million people reinforces this link, concluding that people who are married may be less likely to die from cardiovascular disease: Unmarried people are 43 percent more likely to die from heart disease and 55 percent more likely to die from strokes, researchers from the University of Keele in the UK reported in the journal Heart.

“It’s more about the theatre of the mind. Get naughty and push your boundaries.”

Positive relationships bode well for greater sexual intimacy, too. Older adults who don’t buy into prevailing negative attitudes about sex and aging are more likely to feel confident about expressing their sexual needs and desires. Sex therapist, TV host and author Rebecca Rosenblat says it is important not to be discouraged by our changing bodies. “Your partner is probably more worried about their own body than yours,” she says. Besides, good sex is 90 percent in the brain and only 10 percent in the body. “It’s more about the theatre of the mind,” she says. “Get naughty and push your boundaries.” 

The end of the restless retiree

It’s not only our most intimate relationships that can be reinvented in midlife. Other relationships can be as well. But you have to be proactive. Transitions such as retirement can reduce our day-to-day human contact, leaving a void where the stimulation from collegial interaction once resided.

Mehbs Remtulla’s father didn’t get a chance to enjoy retirement. He died at 66. “But now here I am at 65, feeling like I’m 45,” Remtulla says. “If I truly have another 20, 30 years left, that’s a long time to be doing nothing but watching Wimbledon on a Tuesday afternoon.” Statistically, Remtulla has decades left to live. 

Like many Boomers, Remtulla shuns becoming a “restless retiree.” He already had a taste of that after selling his global healthcare communications agency back in 2000. “Just leave me on an island somewhere,” he joked with a colleague. He soon ate his words. “I had been to the gym by 8 in the morning; read the Globe and Mail by 11 o’clock; and checked my three emails – not 300 – and it wasn’t even noon yet.” He had a horrible sinking feeling despite financial security and a loving wife and family.

He jumped back into the working world as a strategy consultant. Now, years later, he is reinventing himself again by developing the concept of a digital platform to help those in transition. One potential element is social networking, helping match people who share common interests. There is evidence that men may need this service more. His interviews with Boomers found that women often get together with friends several times a week for activities such as a book club or a walk. “If I call my male friends for coffee more than once a week, they would think that there’s something wrong with my head,” he says. “I’m envious.” 

“You can make other people happy only when you are happy yourself.”

Many Boomers are defying ageism and reaching across the generational divide to create new relationships. Remtulla is particularly inspired by his rapport with Millennials. He is a business mentor at MaRS (an innovation hub), and a Millennial is advising him on the development of his digital platform. “[Millennials] bring the freshness of technology that we are quite honestly trying to catch up to, and we bring life experiences and wisdom that will take them another 30 years to get,” he says. The sense of purpose through helping others benefits his primary relationships, too. “You can make other people happy only when you are happy yourself,” he says. 

No substitute for face-to-face connection

Paradoxically, while social media such as Facebook and Instagram make it easy to amass hundreds of “friends,” rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Seeing the curated “best” experiences of others can add to our own feelings of isolation. While social media has its place, there is no substitute for face-to-face connection. There are endless opportunities for this in midlife, from volunteer work to continuing education.

Universities across Canada, for instance, are catering to the needs of an aging population. “There are many stories of people who have gotten to know each other here,” says Sandra Kerr, director, Programs for 50+, at Ryerson University. “Their network expands. They end up making many new connections that they would not have expected.” Kerr says that some people who met in the program have even gotten married. 

Boomer learners today are highly engaged. Kerr says that years ago, students were content watching the “the sage on the stage.” No longer. Boomers often have more life experience than the professors. They ask many questions and value conversation. The professors also love the experience. “They have an audience of people who are interested in the topic, not on whether it is going to be on the exam or not,” Kerr says. 

The average age of widowhood is much younger than we think: 56 years of age.

Jeanette Cairns reinvented herself and her friendships at Ryerson’s 50+ theatre program, ACT II STUDIO. “After my husband died, it was something to do with my time, and then it just grew from there,” she says. The average age of widowhood is much younger than we think: 56 years of age. Given a surviving spouse can expect to live almost another 30 years, many like Cairns are motivated to pave new avenues for connection. 

Cairns’s first acting role was the pyromaniacal Sarita Myrtle in Noel Coward’s play Waiting in the Wings. She describes the experience as “really scary” because she never liked to be the centre of attention. But it was also an adrenaline rush, and she was hooked. “I didn’t have to be me,” she says. “I could be someone else on stage.” 

That first play was 20 years ago. Cairns still takes classes and continues to act. She now writes and also directs plays. Beyond helping to hone her craft, the Ryerson program has sparked enduring friendships. After her husband’s death, she described her weekends as “horrible.” Now, her family and friends joke about having to make an appointment to see her. “It’s just a great bunch of people,” Cairns says about her fellow students. “I feel it’s my other family.” She feels younger than ever. “I tell everybody that I’m 39 but my body got to be 85,” she says.

Like many things – whisky, wine and fine leather wallets – relationships get better with age, too. 

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of YouAreUNLTD magazine

Rebecca Rosenblat suggests ways to increase sexual satisfaction and intimacy as we age.

  1. The pain of penetration caused by vaginal dryness can be addressed by lube during sex, other-the-counter moisturizers like Replens or Damiva, and improving vaginal health through the daily use of estrogen cream. But remember: Most women can’t orgasm from penetration alone. Ninety percent of the clitoris is hidden. “Pay attention to the entire goldmine behind the crowning jewel,” Rosenblat says.
  2. Men have a G-spot, too. Prostate stimulation can cause a more powerful orgasm than penile stimulation – and doesn’t depend on having an erection.
  3. Our sense of touch dulls with age. Touch each other longer and with greater passion. “Put the play back in foreplay to enhance intensity,” Rosenblat says. Sex toys can help!

TTYL: Is how we use communication technology a harbinger for healthy relationships?

Researchers out of the University of Illinois think so. In the study, “A Communicative Interdependence Perspective of Close Relationships: The Connections Between Mediated and Unmediated Interactions Matter,” Drs. John Caughlin and Liesel Sharabi looked at how technology plays a role in romantic relationships. As most couples use multiple methods of technologically mediated communication (TMC) – phone, text, email, social media – to communicate, the researchers argue that that the way these modes connect with one another matters. Their Communicative Interdependence Perspective found that “relational closeness was associated positively with integration between [face-to-face interaction] and TMC and negatively to difficulties transitioning between modes” and that “relational closeness is associated with interconnections among modes of communication.” In other words, if a couple can switch easily from communicating face-to-face in the morning, via technology during the day, and then move seamlessly to face-to-face contact in the evening, that is a strong indicator of a close and satisfying relationship.

Of course, in every healthy relationship it’s important to carve out face-to-face, tech-free time, but here are three ways to use technology to your advantage.

  1. If busy schedules don’t allow for long phone conversations, a simple “Thinking of you xo” text can go a long way in bolstering connections and good feelings. This is true for partners, parents, friends and extended family.
  2. Set reminders to check in with your partner throughout the day.
  3. Use a list app (like Wunderlist) to not only share grocery and to-do lists, but also create a relationship bucket list that includes ideas spanning future dates, day-trip adventures and vacations.

Love and Marriage Resources

Online course

Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson


Where Do We Begin?


The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel 

The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work by Eli J. Finkel


The Gottman Institute is a valuable resource with tools, articles, videos, exercises and more. Explore for workshop dates and locations. 

Related Reads

YouAreUNLTD is thrilled to announce a new Sex & Relationships column by Sue Nador. Check out the interview with Damiva CEO Chia Chia Sun – Women Who Take Charge of Their Sexual Health Promote Lifelong Intimacy: Study

Sex Over 60: Keep the Passion Going as Part of a Life Plan for Healthy Aging

Dr. Marla Shapiro Encourages Women to Break the Silence about Vaginal Dryness

Dr. Vivien Brown on How a Healthy Sex Life Boosts Wellbeing and Social Connectedness

Yes, You Can Enjoy a Robust Sex Life Despite Erectile Dysfunction

Male Menopause. It’s Not Your Imagination. It’s a Real Thing

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Sue Nador
Sue Nador
Sue Nador is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. She is a 2020 candidate for the MFA in Creative Non-fiction at the University of King’s College and is writing a book about reinventing relationships in mid-life. Sue writes for various publications including Corporate Knights, This Magazine, and Via Rail. She has a loyal following on her blog, The Relationship Deal. She and her husband have two grown sons and a golden doodle they spoil rotten in their empty nest.