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Love in the time of dementia

Today’s New York Times Week in Review features a fine piece on love in the Depends years, a relatively new field of study among sociologists and gerontologists.

Historically, love in older age has not been given much of a place in culture, said (Thomas R. Cole, director of the McGovern Center for Health, Humanities and the Human Spirit at the University of Texas, and author of a cultural history of aging). It once conjured images that were distasteful or even scary: the dirty old man, the erotic old witch.

That is beginning to change, Dr. Cole said, as life expectancy increases, and a generation more sexually liberated begins to age. Nursing homes are being forced to confront an increase in sexual activity.

And despite the stereotypes, researchers who study emotions across the life span say old love is in many ways more satisfying than young love — even as it is also more complex.

One example: former Supreme Sandra Day O’Connor, who left the court last year to care for her ailing husband. The true backstory, apparently, is that O’Connor’s husband lives in an Arizona assisted-living home with Alzheimer’s disease — a facility in which, with his failed memory and flickering faculties, he romances another woman, all with Justice O’Connor’s encouragement and blessing, “because it is a relief to see her husband of 55 years so content.”

Certainly, this tests conventional notions of romantic love and its boundaries, doesn’t it? And yet, the more I reread the O’Connors’ story, the more moved I was by her generosity, her humility, her ability to find joy in something as cruel as the death of memory.

“There’s a difference between love as it is presented in movies and music as this jazzy sexy thing that involves bikini underwear and what love actually turns out to be,” said the psychologist Mary Pipher, whose book “Another Country” looked at the emotional life of the elderly. “The really interesting script isn’t that people like to have sex. The really interesting script is what people are willing to put up with.”

“Young love is about wanting to be happy,” she said. “Old love is about wanting someone else to be happy.”

Could a statement be more inspirational, more aspirational? How many of us would have spared ourselves and others the emotional Chernobyls of our teens and 20s, the Obie-worthy monologues and anguished soliloquies of those and later years, had we only known the easy solace that love could be — one that doesn’t have to equate to being stifled?

I met Michael at 36, was pregnant four months later, and when he asked me what I honestly thought of when I thought “long-term relationships” — of forever, as it were — I said what I’d always believed but never said out loud: “The death of all possibility.” And being Michael, he then looked at my knocked-up self and laughed at me. Three years later, he still periodically inquires as to “how the Death of All Possibility is working for (me),” and then I punch him in the head, because every day is so new and surprising and horrifying and edifying, even its mundane routines unexpectedly homey.

Young brains tend to go to extremes — the swooning or sobbing so characteristic of young love. Old love puts things in soft focus.

“As you get older you begin to recognize that this isn’t going to last forever, for better or for worse,” said Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and a research counterpart of Dr. Gabrieli’s in the brain imaging research. “You understand that the bad times pass, and you understand that the good times pass,” Dr. Carstensen said. “As you experience them, they’re more precious, they’re richer.”

(Even yesterday morning, when Grammy decided we should begin diaper-training Eliot by letting her walk around the house commando, which was cool until 1) she got into bed with me, immediately after which the mattress became a Cal-King Urine-Pedic, and 2) as I was trying to eat breakfast on the couch while Ellie sat next to me practicing downward-dog — and honestly, a face full of toddler taint is simply not conducive to healthy digestion. It is however, amazing for the show-to-future-boyfriends video archives.)

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