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Aging Successfully — What’s Love Got To Do With It?

February 12, 2003 — For Freud love stemmed primarily from the sex drive. Jung depicted love as an elaborate process of self-discovery. Fromm treated love as a decision to be carried out or a task to be accomplished. Ecclesiastic scholars have viewed the capacity to love as manifestation of the divine in man.

University of Utah Social Work Professor Amanda Barusch wants to know whether love is an integral component of successful aging.

Barusch, a gerontologist who has been studying issues related to social justice and the elderly for 20 years, is now researching the extent to which definitions of love are reflected in the lived experiences of people-and the extent to which they have become fundamental parts of our culture. Barusch’s primary research interest is “What is Love?” Research is underway with Americans over the age of 60, living in various locations in the United States. About 50 interviews have been completed. (The oldest person was in her late 90s.) Maximum-variation sampling is used to optimize the range of experiences represented, allowing for variation along such dimensions as race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class and family configuration.

The study has, according to Barusch, already revealed “the dark and light sides of love.” Says Barusch: “The saddest part of the research is when a person at the age of 60, 70 or 80 hasn’t loved or been loved-and despairs that he or she will ever find true love. But, the positive side of that is an 85-year-old man who just brims with vitality. He tells the love story of the life he shared with his wife. Although she died five years ago, their love story is still going on. He is one of many older people who feel that their lives have been totally about love.”

Society’s mobility has affected the availability of love mentors, Barusch notes. “Normally, young people would learn how to love by observing their siblings, parents, grandparents and extended family. They would learn about love in a real way. But now, since families often live far away from each other, there is an absence of that information. So young people turn to the media, which gives horrible ideas about love. There’s a dearth of three-dimensional love models. All the how-to books are based on clinical samples, which aren’t normal, so their advice doesn’t work for most people. We really need real love stories to help put our lives in perspective.”

Although not a part of the scientific research, as part of her “Experiences of Love” project, Barusch, in partnership with Salt Lake County Senior Centers, is sponsoring a love story contest. Essays must be penned by authors over age 60. They are not required to be true, but must reflect a truth about love as the author has experienced it. Stories must be submitted by this Friday-Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. (Authors of the five winning essays will receive gift certificates for a dinner for two to Chuck-A-Rama restaurant.)

“We’ve had great response to the essay contest, which has yielded such touching stories that we are hoping to make the contest an annual event,” says Barusch.

To volunteer for an interview, or for more information about the project, call 801-581-8842. Love stories should be sent to:

Amanda Barusch
University of Utah
395 S. 1500 East
SLC, UT 84112