‘I am in my 70s and in a relationship with a man 10 years my senior. I am worried I will end up caring for him’

Tell Me About It: ‘He has asked me to marry him and I find that I am upset by this as I feel I am being unkind in my thoughts’

PROBLEM: I am in my early 70s and I have had a companionable relationship with a man 10 years my senior for about five years now. We get on well and while I enjoy his company, I am not madly in love with him.

I have been lonely for a long time now since my mother died about 15 years ago – I was her main carer. He has asked me to marry him and I find that I am upset by this as I feel I am being unkind in my thoughts. I am worried that I will end up caring for him as I did for my mother and I do not want to go through that again. Yet, I also know that he would like me to inherit his house and any money he has – he would rather his extended family did not get this as they have not been great at visiting or remembering important events in his life.

I know my own family are very fond of him but they share my concerns. I know that it is also likely that I will be the one who becomes sick and needs care and that if this were the case he would look after me well and this makes me feel doubly bad. I also know that I will not meet another partner at this stage in my life and so wonder if I should say yes so that I have companionship in my life. There is one other thing, he would like us to have sex (with the help of Viagra) but I don’t know if this is something I want to do – or if I would feel foolish trying.

ADVICE: Your partner is very clear about what he wants from this relationship – the all-in approach which includes commitment, financial provision and intimacy – and you have to give him credit for his surety on your future together. You have had five years of companionship, but this has not progressed into “in-love” for you, and I wonder is the lack of physical connection playing a part in this.

Your fear of becoming a carer again is understandable and yet it might be blinding you to an obvious choice: both of you can make a plan for when either of you become less able, or ill, and when that happens the plan can be activated. From your letter, you seem well off enough not to need what your companion might offer you in his will and so realising his assets could become a factor in whatever care he might need in the future. If this relationship is to continue, you should both have (aided) conversations about the financial, physical and emotional needs for a joint future. If your partner were to participate in these conversations (to allay your fears) then you might be willing to discuss sex with him, as you both get to put your items on the agenda.

For both of you, your relationship would need to be founded on commitment and some certainty that the other will stand by you in good times and bad. If you continue to struggle with this you may need to face up to it and take the hard choice of ending the relationship, as to stay in it with this level of uncertainty would have the effect of you continually monitoring it to see if it is worthwhile and he guessing if it is solid. The choice to have sex comes after the question of staying in the relationship, as it will require you to step into a zone of discomfort and exposure and if sex is to have any chance of working it needs to be done with ease and pleasure in mind.

Women in later years have a complex response to the question of sex. Those in relationships for the large part, tend to value intimacy but struggle with the changes in their desire and their physical and emotional responses. Older women, in general have not given up their sexuality but question the effort and risks attached to developing an intimate relationship. Many fear showing their bodies now that they are no longer young and wonder if their ability to meet the expectations of their partner’s will be up to scratch.

As you said , the fear of looking foolish is a real one. Orgasm may take longer, and incontinence or leakage may well be a factor – however with some preparation and a sense of adventure and fun, pleasure can be attained, and deep connections forged. Using towels, lube, romantic movies or reading erotic stories to each other can all aid desire and remember that for many women, desire is responsive and not spontaneous. This means that if you participate in lovemaking, the desire can rise during it (and not necessarily beforehand). A good book to read is Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are.

Early 70s is no longer considered old age and you have a lot of life in front of you, so it is important that you give this question (to commit) serious consideration, but this can be best done in collaboration with your companion so that fear is not the only factor in your decision making.

Maybe you can map out more choices than just two, but this is all subject to courageous discussion.