Older couples find that love brings companionship and fun

Since they met nearly two years, Max Okun and Rebecca Ferber have spent nearly all of their free time together.

They share meals, watch television, sit quietly and sometimes dance. They use pet names, such as "Tootsie" or "Mr. Tall and Handsome." They speak warmly of each other. They love to tease.

Okun and Ferber, both single residents of Oakland's Home for Jewish Parents, are in their early 80s. But neither stereotypes nor expectations about older adults have gotten in the way of their affection.

"We both had decent lives. There's no reason we can't have a decent life now," 81-year-old Okun said on a recent summer morning as he sat near Ferber, who is a year older.

For this couple, whose long-time spouses died in recent years, the romance has been relatively smooth. They've received positive reactions from both family members and fellow residents.

"People are happy that we're happy together," Ferber said.

Not all senior couples have it so easy.

Tracy Murray, director of the Home for Jewish Parents, said the reaction from family members — particularly adult children — varies when older adults find love again.

"Some are disgusted. Some tell us these people don't have the right to have these desires," Murray said. "I've had every reaction possible…It's hard for a lot of kids to hear."

And the "kids" aren't usually 25 or 35. They're closer to 65 in most cases. Murray takes a practical attitude toward negative relatives.

"Give them 20 years and see what they think," she said.

Others relatives are thrilled to see their parents or grandparents happy. Murray herself supports late-life love.

"Just because you get older doesn't mean you have a lower sex drive or your need for companionship will decrease," she said.

Though she hasn't dealt with the situation at the Oakland home, Murray said senior facilities should accommodate couples who need privacy.

It's not as if nursing home residents are pairing off at the same rate as teens at a school dance. More than 95 percent of the Oakland home's nearly 100 residents are alone, mostly widowed or divorced. There are only three sets of unmarried couples — and one longtime married pair.

While Murray says the reasons for each connection are as varied as the individuals involved, some aspects of relationships among older people differ from those of their younger counterparts.

Money issues crop up in different ways. Some older couples will refuse to marry in order to prevent problems with insurance policies, government health benefits or inheritance. At times, family members who have decided that a companion is only after money will try to pressure older relatives to reject their new loves.

The focus on companionship is also more pronounced among older people. Gender roles are more defined. And decades of following a certain routine can create more friction.

"It's more mature. But I don't think it's any different than when you're in your 50s," Murray said.

For residents of the Oakland home, whose median age hovers between 85 and 87, a companion can be a welcome relief from isolation. Couples will talk, eat meals, listen to music and play cards together. Sometimes, they just like to hang out.

"Even if they're not talking, it's someone to be with who you have compatibility with," Murray said.

Ferber and Okun hit it off the moment they met. Ferber, a former accountant with an incredible recollection of details, easily recalls the date Okun moved in — Sept. 19, 1994. They met a day later and have been together ever since.

"She's always my girl," Okun said. "She's a very smart, bright, easy-going lady. We get along just exceptionally."

She returns the compliment.

"He's a decent human being. He's caring. He's a mensch," Ferber said.

When Ferber met Okun, she had already been living at the home for nearly a year and had never thought a minute about dating again. Her husband of 46 years, Ben, had died in May 1992.

A petite woman with short white hair and a fuchsia sweatsuit, Ferber teases about how she met Okun.

"Did he tell you how I picked him up?" she said of the time she first noticed Okun in a corridor. "I saw Mr. Tall and Handsome alone in a forest of closed doors…I adopted him."

The pair banter back and forth easily. They joke and smile and constantly compliment one another. They're not necessarily physically affectionate, but they like to kiss goodnight before they head off to their own rooms.

Both speak openly about their respect for their longtime spouses. Okun calls Ruth, his wife of 54 years, "one of the most wonderful women ever."

But Okun, who has neatly combed gray hair and wore a blue turtleneck, added that "the worst thing for me is to be by myself."

The only issue that seems to create friction is the marriage question .

Okun said he'd marry Ferber "in a minute." She resists.

"I'm interested in his well-being. I'm happy when he's happy. But I don't want to get married again," she said.

Still, this area of contention doesn't seem to overshadow the rest of their relationship.

"We have fun," Okun said. "That's what it's all about."