Living With Polio

Lonely, but Dating?

Post-Polio Health, Volume 28, Number 3, Summer 2012.

Dr. Rhoda Olkin is a Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Francisco, as well as Executive Director of the Institute on Disability and Health Psychology. She is a polio survivor and single mother of two grown children.

QUESTION: I am 66 and widowed for five years. My wife was highly attuned to my needs with polio. We had a loving relationship for 25 years. I am anxious about dating again, specifically meeting and trusting someone and also relying on someone again with my disability. My wife had a heart of gold and it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to replace her.

Response from Rhoda Olkin, PhD:

First, I am sorry about the loss of your obviously beloved wife; my condolences. And second, I can relate to your trepidations about dating again – it is not easy as an older person, nor as a person with a disability. (I happen to fit both these descriptions.) But rest assured, it is not easy for those without disabilities either!

You have to know that nothing replaces 25 years of building a loving and trusting relationship, one that started when you were younger. Thus, it is important as you date that you not be looking for the same things that you found in your wife. You were in your mid-30s when you married her, and what you wanted and needed then are probably different from what you want and need now. Additionally, the life tasks and goals we have in our 30s, 40s and 50s are different than our life tasks in our 60s and beyond.

I would suggest you begin by making a list of what is important to you now, individually, as a 66-year-old man. Second, what would you like in a partner? Is it to live with someone or to see someone on weekends, to have someone to watch movies with but then go home, for sexual encounters or for snuggling in the middle of the night, for intimate chats or occasional dinners?

Third, look hard at the items on this list. I cannot help but wonder if some of the things you want are about basic assistance or security as a person with a disability. Are you worried you might fall and no one will be there to help you? Do you have trouble with daily household tasks? Do you get fatigued and want someone else to do some of the driving?

I understand the fragility some of us polio survivors feel about living independently, especially as we age. But as you look for a partner, make sure you are not really looking for an assistant. Partners provide assistance because they have a meaningful history and years of love to fortify their assistance. New partners do not bring this to the table and shouldn’t be expected to.

So basic assistance needs have to be met other ways. For example, start a phone buddy system of someone to check in on you (and you on that person). If at all possible, hire someone to do laundry, clean, grocery shop; outsource whatever you can afford.

At any age, we do better at dating if we have confidence in ourselves and our ability to be alone. From this position of strength, go find a partner. And love can come at any time, at any age. It won’t be like the last time, but it can still be rewarding, fulfilling and special.

Tags for this article:
Mental Health
Psychological Health
Quality of Life