Playing dating game as seniors, some discover changing rules

Even at 76, she's a looker.

For 14 years, Ruth has lived in a retirement home, a dozen of those years with Frank by her side.

So, when she lost her husband of 55 years to leukemia, potential suitors lined up.

Ruth had the qualifiers all set in her mind.

"I don't like people who cuss or drink a lot," she said, and no suitors with conjugal obligations.

"In fact, I had a married man who wanted to take me out," says Ruth. "I said, 'This is not for me.'"

Here's the deal about dating and being 70, 80, even 90. Some people pooh-pooh it. Some are astounded to learn a person that age would even consider it.

And some seniors, like Ruth, find out what it's like to play the field after decades out of the game.

"Dating is dating," says Ruth, "but it's different when you're older."

Think of dating as a teenager, maybe even older.

Awkward moments. Sweaty palms. Butterfly stomachs. Racing hearts.

Senior romance, on the other hand, is more often a closeness that is eased into, defined by mutual comfort and interests, nurtured by conversation and shared feelings.

Ruth recalls a day when Frank sat down and talked about their wedding vows. She had been ill several times with cancer. He had battled disease for more than two decades.

They talked about how they had married "for better, for worse, 'til death do us part." And, they decided, that's exactly how it should be.

That meant no moping around after one of them died. No living in the past.

If a second chance for love was to come around, take it.

That's the way Ruth looked at it when John asked her out.

John (a "young 80" by Ruth's standards) was a friend of Frank's. He also knew Ruth from the retirement complex. For their first date, they doubled with another couple in the breakfast nook.

The relationship bloomed from there. Dinners out. Dates for the movies. "Patch Adams," "A Civil Action," and that big-screen epic about the great big ape.

When Ruth had another cancer scare, John accompanied her to the doctor's office. He introduced her to his children. She introduced him to her daughter.

"It's a real nice friendship, companionship," says Ruth. "I never thought I'd find somebody."

One thing about love: It isn't something you turn on and off. It isn't something that starts or ends at a certain age. It isn't something that should be denied because a spouse has died.

Kelly Ferrin calls love "that intangible emotion that really just keeps us full of life." And age shouldn't get in the way of connecting with another soul.

"Too many people get caught up in numbers," the California gerontologist says. "You're too old to date. Well, who says?"

Marie Sheets asked herself the same question more than two years ago, after meeting Don Lewis.

She was visiting with her friends at a retirement community at the time. They were just chatting in the lobby about nothing in particular, when somewhere, amid the niceties, someone suggested Lewis walk Sheets to her room.

Sheets says the hallway conversation was light and ended at her door. She remembers thinking, "Was I rude for not inviting him in?"

The courtship at the retirement home continued. Lewis, 79, twice-divorced, wondered if Sheets liked him, if he'd made a good impression.

Sheets, 83, wondered if she was ready to open her heart to another relationship. The last one — with husband Paul — had endured more than 52 years.

When Paul died in 1988, Marie wished she had died, too.

"I was just to the place that I was so lonely I didn't care what happened," she says.

Sheets never thought she would "take up with another man." That she did is a perversion of common thought.

"We have widely held beliefs about what sort of things are normal or typical for an older person," says John Stolte, director of the gerontology program at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Stolte says our beliefs about aging are internalized from the time we are young, but technology, medical wizardry and economic prosperity have skewed lifelines.

Today, more than 12 percent of the population is age 65 or older; that number is expected to climb in the coming years.

As such, conventional wisdom is out of sync with the reality of the aging experience.

"Aging is not this consistent steady decline in capabilities," says Stolte.

"There are a lot of very healthy, well-educated, alive people."

For Ruth and John, the marriage topic came up in conversation about five months into their courtship.

She made it clear she wasn't looking for another husband. He confessed that he, too, was quite comfortable with life the way it is.

They talked about sex as well.

For older couples, many who come from longtime monogamous relationships, that can be the most difficult topic to discuss, says Ferrin.

"Are you going to be intimate? Can you still have those types of relationships? The answer is yes," says Ferrin. "The type of intimacy may be a little different, though."

But, then, aren't all relationships, regardless of age?

For Ruth, dating in her 70s means spending time with a very nice man who treats her like a lady — someone she looks forward to seeing.

Ruth is satisfied with her life, even though she has to deal with so-called friends who are aghast she is dating.

"Some don't even talk to me. They say I'm not being true to Frank's memory," says Ruth. "I'll always have those memories, but that's what they are. Memories."