Leonard was a pioneer in medical care, first in the research of arthritis in the 1960s and later when he wrote the U.S. government’s protocol for stroke rehabilitation. We talked a lot about aging. He opened my eyes to many interesting aspects of his generation’s newfound longevity—including dating.

Companionship, he observed, becomes even more important as you age. Family may move away, or you move away from them. Friends age unevenly. Many older people follow their adult children to stay in touch with grandkids and to ensure nearby care. Researchers tell us social isolation is “the new cigarettes” because of its impact on health.

Leonard thought he had a pretty good handle on the process of aging, but he was unprepared for the variety of relationships he encountered when he and his wife retired to Florida. He had never been much of a gossip, but he was fascinated by the different social situations created by the unpredictable dynamic of aging. He watched single ladies in their 70s and 80s compete for the affections of the few single older men. He had a couple of friends who “played the field” and still others who had a “special friend.”

While many couples approach retirement in pretty good health—and are at first equally robust—one of the pair will likely be more physically resilient and outlive the partner. Studies indicate greater longevity for women—by an average of seven or so years. As I’ve written before, not too many couples think about the stage of life when one of them is impaired—or alone.

Paula remained robust and very active and very social. Leonard had been more reclusive—more comfortable in a professional arena and never fully engaged in his new community. He was unprepared for life after work, while Paula was chomping at the bit. She encouraged Leonard to seek out activities and friends. It is sometimes hard for men to do that.

When Leonard contracted pancreatic cancer and died four months later, he and his wife became the statistic I’d written about for years.

It was not really a surprise when Paula started seeing Jerry (somewhat ironically—or morbidly—Leonard had predicted it). Jerry was active, an outdoorsman and birding enthusiast—pretty much the opposite of Leonard. He and Paula attended church together, met for lunch afterward. Paula started drinking the same gin as Jerry. They took local bird tours together and attended programs at the community center.

Paula had a real sparkle in her eye when she talked about Jerry. She got to know his adult children and spoke to them regularly. Her kids were not initially supportive—Paula blew off a couple of holiday gatherings to spend time with him. But they began to understand how important he was to her. They never really traveled anywhere, they never lived together or got married. They just hung out.

Jerry suffered physical ailments that began to limit his mobility. He became less active—and frustrated. He and Paula shared time together in more sedate activities. Paula spoke more to Jerry’s kids about his health and became part of his support team. Recently, Jerry died too. Though it was unexpected, he was well past 80. Paula was very sad but also reflective. Grateful for their time together but also aware that time was limited. Perhaps a good lesson for us all.

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