Love and sex in retirement homes

Couples and single Casanovas talk about their love lives as seniors.

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Burt V. Robins and Vi Cherry in their home at the Hallmark of Chicago

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Burt V. Robins and Vi Cherry in their home at the Hallmark of Chicago

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Keith Proctor and Nola Jean Ward at the Victory Centre of Glenwood retirement community in Chicago

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Photograph: Allison Williams

Richard Costabile at the Victory Centre of Glenwood retirement community in Chicago

Nola Jean Ward sat in her motorized chair in October, unaware Keith Proctor had been watching her from across the room. When she turned around, he was bent down beside his walker, his nose just inches in front of hers.

Then he kissed her.

“She just looked so nice sitting there. I didn’t know what her reaction was going to be, but I was going to do it anyway,” Proctor says. “A kiss happened every time we met after that.”

The two had lived on the same floor at Victory Centre of Galewood retirement community on the Northwest Side for about a year. While they had worked together putting on plays with the community drama troupe, they had never spent any time alone together. Still, Ward had noticed Proctor’s good looks. Early on, she joked with Proctor’s daughters that he would have no trouble finding a girlfriend in the community, but they maintain they never let their father in on the crush. At 83 years old, Proctor has a full head of thick, silver hair that flows back from a sharp widow’s peak into a wavy tuft above his left eye.

“We raised some eyebrows around here,” Proctor says. “There were a lot of double takes and speculating.” Now whenever Ward comes down the elevator into the community space, the gaggle of residents sitting in the lobby tells her where to find her companion. “‘He’s in the library,’ ‘He’s asleep in the TV room,’ they tell me,” says Ward, 78. Together they go by nicknames including “the lovebirds” and (their favorite) “Ma and Pa Kettle.”

Richard Costabile, 71, the community’s social gadabout, isn’t sure whether Proctor and Ward are platonic or something more, but chuckles at what he calls the “old geezer” couple he sees strolling out of the cafeteria. They can’t hear a word the other says, he says with a laugh.

Costabile, who wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses when he’s not wearing contacts, is a lifelong bachelor and the facility’s resident poet. Although he hasn’t dated during his three years at Victory Centre (the women he’s interested in are all taken, and, during his younger years, he learned better than to mess with another man’s woman, he says), he has plenty of affection to share with the ladies. “When I am with you I am nothing I was before but I am everything I ever wish I could be and much more,” reads one of his love poems that’s especially popular with the female residents. He writes poems and recites them on the spot for ladies, pulls out chairs for them, and kisses their hands like gentlemen once did. “Some of the ladies swoon over my poems,” he says, laughing. “They have their own little boners.”

The women there, many of whom have been divorced or widowed for decades, are eager to be the object of a handsome man’s affections once again, says Allison Danzer, executive director of the facility. During the community’s most recent resident meeting, the first question to Danzer was “When are you going to bring us some more good-looking men?” she says.

While there aren’t enough Casanovas to go around (independent-living communities are often predominantly female), dating in retirement communities is hardly rare. Amid old movies shown nightly in dimly lit TV rooms, nights out to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, bridge and Wii bowling games, single residents have myriad ways to connect. These communities provide residents far more independence and less supervision than do nursing homes, giving them the freedom to canoodle either within the facility or hop in a cab to hit the town for a date. If anything, staff members often encourage relationships as a way to curb loneliness and help residents find their zest for life.

“By this age in their lives, people have experienced a lot of loss and grief and are hungry for some companionship,” Danzer says. “They are very free and throw a lot of their inhibitions out the window.”

Milt Handler, 86, is on what he calls his second “lady friend” at Sedgebrook, a senior living community in Lincolnshire. While he and his first parted ways when her dementia became too advanced to continue the relationship, several months ago he met Mary Gerlik over a game of bridge. They’ve been dating ever since. “I went to a technical college, so I didn’t have any exposure to women. I’m trying to make up for it now,” Handler jokes.

Burt V. Robins, a young-looking 79, took things a bit more slowly with Vi Cherry. While the two met in 2010 over a group dinner at a senior living community in Lombard and became friends, he soon realized he was interested in more. As they were both music fans, he found that inviting Cherry to his apartment to listen to records was the perfect way to get closer to her. He showed her the paintings and murals he had created, and she was taken with his talent. Eventually, he asked her on a date. “I told him he should go for a younger woman. But he said he had already looked them over!” says Cherry, who bashfully says she’s older than Robins but won’t disclose by how many years. They scheduled their first date for Valentine’s Day, and after Cherry went through multiple outfits and hours getting ready, she learned he had gone to the hospital instead due to complications from his skin cancer.

Health is a constant concern for many later-life couples. And besides postponing their dates, it often takes sex off the table. While a little blue pill can bring one body part back to its youth, it can’t fix all health problems, says Ward, who has an aortic implant and limits her walking to prevent stressing her heart. Proctor has colon cancer and went through radiation. “We’ve discussed and rediscussed having sex. But if it ever happens, it would be a miracle,” Ward says. “We don’t always agree,” Proctor says as he smirks at his companion.

Likewise, even though Robins and Cherry have moved in together at the Hallmark in Lakeview East and now share a bed, possibilities for romance are still limited. “Neither of us is physically capable of the ultimate show of affection,” he says. But that doesn’t stop him from doting on Cherry. His original New Year’s resolution was to love her more than he did the year before. Although a few days later, he woke her up to tell her the addendum: He wants to love more of her, to be more physically intimate.

They enjoy living together, but they have no desire to get married. “Him asking me to move in was his proposal, or maybe it was more of a proposition,” Cherry says, laughing. Either way, they like being able to share their lives without all of the legal documents or questions from their children. Sitting close to each other on their couch with their fingers intertwined, they say they love their deceased spouses, but they now wear their wedding rings from their previous marriages as a commitment to each other. “This is even better than marriage,” Robins says. “It’s simpler.”

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