Gettin’ Up There: Gray Divorce: Proceed with Caution

Sunday Signal

Fifty-two years ago, when then 75-year old Sarah left her 84-year old husband Mort, a tectonic shift was felt among everyone that knew the couple. This was a shocker of seismic proportions. Together forever, and without children, the divorce was Sarah’s idea. Apparently, it wasn’t for another man, or another woman. It was for her mental health and finding joy in whatever time she had left.

My being a teenager when this split-up occurred, I never knew the details on what catapulted the small, feisty, white-haired woman out of her outwardly comfy life. But through a relative, I had heard she’d said the following: “I was miserable living with that man. I’d bit my lip for so many years, I’m amazed that I still have a mouth.”

As a life veteran myself now, and cognizant of my own good, bad, and “where’s the emergency exit?” experiences in certain relationships, her escape sounds far less earth-shattering today. Ideally, marriage should be a lifelong embrace of mutual love, laughter, fidelity, compromise, forgiveness and support – not a slow walk on the gangplank to death wearing a psychological straitjacket, right?

Statistically speaking, Sarah and Mort were way ahead of their time. For while late life break-ups were rare in 1967, they have skyrocketed in recent decades.

The Pew Research Center reports that the divorce rate among U.S. adults age 50 and over has doubled during the last 30 years. It’s even higher for couples married more than once. Referred to as “gray divorce,” these marital disconnections are largely driven by seniors living longer, not viewing divorce as the social and religious taboos they used to be, and Boomers craving what they wanted in their Woodstock years: peace, love, and understanding – without being tethered to someone they can’t stand being with.

While that sounds like plausible reasons for getting out, there may be stronger reasons for some couples staying in.

For older folks that have each worked in careers and/or long saved through the years, later life singlehood may not present a detrimental monetary or lifestyle impact. In fact, it may be a fresh and healthy re-boot for living. However, for many couples, particularly where there wasn’t a considerable amount of savings and investments, and/or where the wife didn’t work (outside of taking care of the family and home), divorce may add the huge burden of financial insecurity and the chronic anxiety that accompanies such stress.

Dr. Gene Dorio, a geriatric physician in Santa Clarita, acknowledges that while divorce may be the best answer for some seniors, it is more often a regrettable choice – and can lead to one or both exes suffering. Therefore, he advises couples to seek professional help before making any changes.

“One cannot remain in an abusive relationship, physical or emotional, but no matter the circumstance – unless it is perceived to be life-threatening – they should consider getting psychotherapy,” recommends Dorio, who for more than 30 years has provided house-calls for seniors.

In divorce, emotional issues are the usual cause, but financial issues will take a major toll, he warns.

Dorio, who ran a free divorce support group for 15 years (“Mr. Mom and Mrs. Dad”), urges seniors to anticipate their needs, talk with close family and friends, and examine all ramifications of divorce before going to an attorney and entering divorce proceedings.

“These (effects) include legal fees (in a costly legal system), someone having to move out (maybe both), lifestyles being altered, insurance coverages may change, relationships with family, friends, and pets will be different, and physical and mental health may deteriorate, leading to depression, loneliness, and isolation,” Dorio said, adding, “In this day and age with living expenses so high, unless a couple has an extraordinary amount of money, getting a divorce would be too costly and potentially devastate both individuals.” 

Divorce, he explained, is also time consuming, emotionally draining, and results in someone else making decisions for you.  

“In most cases, it will escalate the aging process,” Dorio concluded.

Counseling and serious forethought to leaving one’s mate may successfully prevent a gray marriage from becoming a gray divorce. And salvaging what went from sweet to sour may well add years to your life, and life to your years, together.

As for Sarah, her remaining years were many, yet she was often disgruntled about this or that. She ultimately died in a single bed within a “home for the aged.” I have long wondered if therapy could have saved her marriage. But counseling, like senior divorce, was not a common go-to solution back then.

The older and wiser me also ponders what Mort’s side of the story might have been…

Diana Sevanian is a retired R.N. and longtime Signal features writer and columnist.

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