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Romance and Intimacy: Are “Older” People Really all that Different?
Getty Images on Unsplash

February 2024 – Delia Lloyd

Theme: Relationships

Romance and Intimacy:
Are “Older” People Really all that Different?

We’ve made a lot of progress in recent years in changing the narrative around older people and sex. But have we gone too far? Delia Lloyd asks whether we’re at risk of talking about romance and intimacy in a way that underscores what’s different across generations, rather than what they have in common. 

Young man and woman

Photography by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

An old friend got in touch not long ago to tell me she was working on a memoir. She was writing about what it was like to start dating in her mid-40’s, after ending a long, largely sexless marriage. She asked me to take a look at an early draft. 

I was expecting stories of lame pickup lines, mediocre pasta dinners with would-be suitors and long walks in comfy cardigans. Instead, I found myself reading frank and detailed accounts of sex clubs…threesomes…and, well…fit. (Yeah, that kind of fit.) In short, her memoir wasn’t so much about dating as it was about sex. 

The truth is, “older” people seeking romance and intimacy ain’t all that different from the rest of us.

The manuscript was raw and refreshing. My first thought was “Wow, she’s really putting herself out there! She’s so brave!” It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I questioned my initial reaction. Why should sexual experimentation—and enjoyment—be considered bold in midlife? Why did I immediately think her story sounded more suited to that of a 20-something than a middle-aged woman? 

Young couple sitting close on a bench

Photogrpahy by Lashawn Dobbs on Unsplash.

There’s an obvious answer to that question. The narrative we’ve long been fed in both popular culture and research about dating and intimacy among “older adults” (which usually means over-50) tends to centre on physical decline, compromised function and loneliness. 

That narrative is changing. The Viagra revolution helped to reinvigorate conversations around the sex lives of the (cough) “elderly.” The hit reality TV series, The Golden Bachelor, about the romantic escapades of a 72-year-old widower, has also done its part to combat stereotypes about ageing and sex. More recently, Cosmopolitan magazine and the Kinsey Institute teamed up to showcase the results of a survey they conducted about women over 60 and their sexual mores. “Yes, women over 60 still masturbate!” could have been the strapline. 



A still from the Golden Bachelor TV programme

The Golden Bachelor.

This is all to the good. I worry, however, that in our effort to publicise these stories of mid- and late-life sex, we’re in danger of ghettoizing the very people we’re seeking to celebrate. The truth is, “older” people seeking romance and intimacy ain’t all that different from the rest of us. At least, that’s what the data are telling us. 

When it comes to old school, face-to-face dating, for example, a 2023 survey conducted by Medicare in America found that old people meet possible mates exactly the same way young people do: through bars, gyms, and through friends. It’s true that when it comes to online dating, there are some differences between these generations. According to a 2023 Pew survey, Americans over 50 use dating apps less than younger people do. There are also some interesting differences around gender. But according to an expert interviewed for the Medicare survey, senior singles in America make up one of the fastest growing demographics in online dating. 

More importantly, perhaps, the Pew survey reveals that older people are broadly looking for the same things in a partner. Some, like one newly separated friend of mine, are just looking for a bit of “nookie.” Others, like another, divorced friend who’s a veteran of dating apps, are seeking “someone to shovel snow with.” 

63 percent of those surveyed, age isn't a defining factor in seeking a partner.

What about attitudes and behaviours in this realm outside the US? Here, I was intrigued by data gathered by the online dating site, Bumble, from over 26,800 of its users globally in 2023. One of the more interesting findings is that there’s more openness to dating across generations than there used to be. For 63 percent of those surveyed, age isn’t a defining factor in seeking a partner. 59 percent of women reported being more open to dating someone younger than them. 

That data wasn’t broken down by age. But a 2023 article in the magazine Platinum reported the results of a US Survey showing that 81% of women are open to dating someone ten years younger, and nearly 90% of men are interested in dating someone ten years older. Which may explain why I get so irritated every time I turn on the television and see an advert from the “mature” dating service, Ourtime. In this ad, some gallant, grey-haired gentleman gallantly slow dances with a suitably lined female partner. I get that some people want to exclusively date people their age. But what if, pace the actress Demi Moore, I want to date Ashton Kutcher, her ex-husband who was 15 years her junior when they tied the knot? Where’s that commercial? (I’m a happily married woman, I hasten to add. Sorry, Ashton). 

A hand holding a phone with the Bumble dating app on it.

Photography by Good Faces Agency on Unsplash.

The other trend that jumped out at me from the Bumble data was the rise of so called “Val-Core” dating. For years, people have sought out partners who share the same core values. Increasingly, however, they’re not just looking for alignment on social and political issues with their prospective mates, but active engagement. This would seem to only lend more support to the idea of de-ghettoizing “older” people as a totally separate category in the romance and intimacy space. Since when are our values determined by our age? 

Where we see perhaps a larger generation gap is when it comes to a third trend Bumble highlights among its user base: a greater openness to, and tolerance of, multi-partner relationships. So-called “ethical non-monogamy”—which refers to consensual multi-partner relationships—is one of the fastest growing trends in the dating space. Apps serving this market, like Feeld, have soared in popularity in recent years. 

A 2023 You Gov survey of Americans found that while a majority of Americans (55%) continue to favour monogamy, around a third describe their ideal relationship as something other than monogamous. In the main, however, men and women in under 45 in the States tend to be more receptive to polyamory than those over 45. I suspect those numbers may change, particularly since women tend to outlive men. They may find the appeal of being in an unconventional, non-monogamous relationship as they age. The wild popularity of a new memoir by a middle-aged Brooklynite describing her open marriage certainly suggests that people are curious. 

An older couple holding hands in a theme park.

Photography by Tom Nappey for NICA.

What all of this says to me is that there’s still too much age-bias in how we think and talk about romance and intimacy. Innovation is required in the conceptualisation, the marketing and the narratives we share about those of us North of 50. We need to capture the diversity of our preferences and practices when it comes to dating and sex. We may even need to write our own memoirs. 

More Information

Further reading.

Here’s the Cosmopolitan/Kinsey Institute Survey about the sex lives of women over 60

This is the survey carried out by Medicare about how seniors and millennials date

Online dating trends among Americans over 50 can be found here. 

Bumble’s 2024 global dating predictions are here.  

Here’s the survey about changing American attitudes about dating people outside your age cohort. 

American attitudes towards monogamy are described here. 

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