Very Legal: Sex and Love in Retirement

Tony dancing at a Mardi Gras party at Flushing House.Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photo/New York Magazine

Sally loves her boyfriend Albert’s hair. She loves his face and his body, too, but she keeps coming back to the hair. It is great hair, thick and luxuriant and combed back from his face in little waves that puff out here and there. Still, when they first met, Sally wasn’t always sure Al was right for her. She thought, Albert is good-looking, but he’s too loud and boisterous for me. His voice would carry across the entire dining room.

For his part, Al noticed Sally right away. He didn’t sit with her at meals, but he got in the habit of stopping by her table, where he would stand and chat with the ladies seated around it. Then he joined the poker game she played every night and saw how other men flirted with her over their cards. Still, he kept his cool and waited patiently. “I used to say, ‘See you at the game,’ and that’s all. I never made a play at her.” Eventually, his slow-burn approach had the desired effect.

“He’s so handsome,” Sally now coos. We’re in the Large Activities Room of Flushing House—an independent-living facility in Queens, with a population just over 300—and ­despite the game of volleyball going on behind them in which fifteen or so seated residents bat a balloon back and forth over a low net, Al and Sally have scooted their chairs close together, and their hands are like moths, constantly flittering over the armrests and toward each other. “He is a handsome man for 89. Look at that hair.” Sally runs her fingers through it.

“And the mustache? You don’t like the mustache?” asks Al.

“I love the mustache. You know that, Albert.”

“You’re the prettiest girl here, Sally. The prettiest woman here.”

“I’m 90 years old! The prettiest girl here?” Sally laughs at the thought, and yet her hand reaches up to smooth her peach-tinted bob.

By Flushing House standards, Sally and Al took things at a glacial pace. So did Kitty and David, who had been at Flushing House together for around a year before they started dating, though she’d had a tendency to fall asleep sitting next to him in the lobby with her head resting on his shoulder. (“She came after me” is how he explains it. “It may be true,” she responds.) Herb and Henrietta met in the hallway shortly after she moved in four doors down from him, and she says, “He didn’t give me a chance to look for anybody else.” Tony and Alice became “companions” after dancing together at the New Year’s Eve party just a few months after he became a resident.

This last coupling was a particular disappointment to a number of the single women. Tony has a twinkly, Frank Sinatra vibe. He walks without a cane. He dances with panache. But while Tony will amiably two-step with anyone, his real attentions are directed at Alice, for reasons even he can’t articulate. (“It just grows, I guess.”) She’s the one he takes on walks, the one whose hand he holds, the one he cares for ever since her memory started to slip—and the one whom he might do a few more intimate things with, though as a rule he stays tight-lipped on that particular subject.

Al decidedly doesn’t. “I’m 89, but I’ve still got that zing.” Along with chewing gum and sugar pills, he keeps Viagra in a plastic bag in the breast pocket of his shirt. “I get the best from the V.A.,” he tells me, fingering the blue tablet. “They’re better now than ever. They get me crazy … You know, sex isn’t everything, but it has a lot to do with it. An awful lot to do with it. That’s three quarters of your battle won.” And it’s a battle he won with Sally, even though she was the one to initiate the romance, following him home one night from poker. “She made a right turn. I asked, ‘Where are you going?’ She said, ‘To your apartment.’ And that was it.”

Traditionally, nursing homes don’t encourage sex. Not only do many, including Flushing House, have religious affiliations to contend with, but there’s also the fact that the people footing the bill are often children and grandchildren not thrilled to imagine their forebears shacking up with someone new. Then there’s the fear of sexually transmitted diseases, which, owing in part to Viagra, are famously on the rise among the geriatric population. As Al puts it, “Sex takes a little longer now, but it’s wonderful for the woman. I can go on. You know?”

In response to the rising STD rate, Flushing House has invited the Visiting Nurse Service of New York to come in and lead two sex-ed programs: one for the men and one for the women. “They can’t get them to talk if they do it together,” Katie, the activities leader, says of her clients. “They just don’t think about [STDs], because in their day and age, they didn’t.”

Herb and Henrietta, who have moved in together.Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photo/New York Magazine

But Flushing House is an independent-living facility, not a nursing home, which drastically limits the level of supervision. Sure, the staff can stop someone from looking at porn on the communal computers, but when one resident started going out clubbing, for example, they turned a blind eye. If anything, relationships—as a useful antidote to loneliness—are encouraged. There’s a darkened TV room that plays a constant cycle of romantic oldies. There are tables for two in the dining room. There are even frequent dances in the glass solarium on the roof, from where you can see all five boroughs; security cameras recently caught one couple up there going at it in the nude.

The population is overwhelmingly heterosexual—though, until recently, there was one transgender resident—and more than two thirds are female, meaning that the men typically get to do the picking. When a guy comes on the scene that the women consider a catch—someone who you can tell was handsome years ago—jostling ensues. One male resident confessed to me that he hadn’t had sex in three days, as if it were a crime. Another confided that he still gets blow jobs.

The dining room is the social nexus of the facility. There’s Tony and Alice’s group, which is usually one of the first to be seated, with their friend Hilda begging Abraham (a staffer who escorts residents to their seats) not to put them in “Sing-Sing,” one of the tables farthest from the door. There’s a table of five women who implore Abraham to fill the sixth seat with “either a gorgeous guy or another woman we can talk to.” There’s the woman who always wanted to sit with the man who looked like her dead husband, until she did and realized he wasn’t like her husband at all. “I was married 55 and a half years,” she explains. “I don’t think I could go with anybody else.”

The most-sought-after dinner companion of late is a man named Roosevelt, who is a young 71 and who wears pressed shirts and speaks in a velvety rumble. Shortly after his arrival, Abraham noticed a trend: Women were trying to save a seat at their table, and as soon as Roosevelt sauntered up to the hostess stand, they would eagerly wave Abraham their way. Not that it did them much good in the end. By and large, Roosevelt feels the women at Flushing House are just too old for him.

Age, unsurprisingly, is the biggest deterrent to dating at Flushing House. Most of its residents have already nursed and lost one life partner and are not keen to do it again. As one woman explains, “I was married twice, and then I had a boyfriend. I don’t want to be bothered now.” Another resident tells me he doesn’t want to date an older woman, but refuses to make himself “ridiculous” by being seen on the arm of a young one. Even when residents are partnered up, there can come a point when one’s body becomes too fragile to entrust it to someone else. Herb and Henrietta, 97 and 90 respectively, were both too sick to even come downstairs most of this past winter. “Sex?” she says. “Oh, honey, there isn’t any.”

Al and Sally have had the most tumultuous relationship at Flushing House. They’ve broken up and rekindled and broken up four or five times. Al blames Sally’s declining health: Not only has their sex life dropped off, but she needs a walker these days and rarely agrees to leave the building. “I want to go out,” he says. “I want to drive to Jones Beach and take her to dinner. But she just says no. It wasn’t like that before.”

When Al’s family came to visit, “I invited her all week long. I said, ‘Sally, don’t forget you’re coming with me. We’re going to eat with them. We’re gonna go out to eat.’ The following day, she calls me up in the morning, and she says, ‘Al, I don’t feel good.’ I told her, ‘You’re full of shit.’ ”

Sally, for her part, can’t understand why Al expects a woman her age to always be up for anything. She’s had three husbands—a lifetime filled with men. If there were ever a moment when she should be let off the hook, when little should be asked of her, then that time is now.

And she isn’t alone in her no-nonsense approach. The couples at Flushing House seem to engage in a distilled form of dating. There’s a practicality that comes with knowing there are certain undeniable limits to how long a romance can last, or what romance at the age of 85 even means. Gone are certain external factors (financial viability, child-rearing capability, long-term life goals); compatibility can now boil down simply to the types of shared interests that traditionally populate personals ads—taking sunset walks or reading paperback mysteries. Couples may tell one another, as Kitty told David, “You’re the best thing in my present life,” but when they do pass on, they’ll often be buried next to their first spouses, as if their latter-day loves never took place.

All of which takes the pressure off; no one here is burdened with finding the loves of their lives. The cafeteria’s complex pecking order may recall high school, but relationships don’t have nearly the same all-­consuming nature as when residents were younger. Of those now dating, only Henrietta and Herb have moved in together, despite the economic advantages of ­double occupancy. For the most part, people don’t feel the need to alter their lives substantially. “I want a little peace in my life for the first time in 70 years,” Roosevelt tells me. “I want my space, and I want freedom. And I finally got it.”

Bridget, a tiny woman with cherry-red hair and an Irish accent, met her ex-boyfriend Nelson a few weeks after moving into Flushing House when they were outside the building waiting for Access-a-Ride. (“How romantic!”) “I had my eye on him,” she says. “He wasn’t a good-looking man, but he had nice lips.” Things progressed quickly from there: “Your time is limited. When you reach 80, what have you got to lose?”

However, when Nelson left the facility to move in with family who could give him more care and asked Bridget to come with him, she was more “levelheaded.” She had already been married and knew what it was like to tailor her life for a man. Why can’t it just be about having fun?, her thinking now goes. Bridget has since become something of a flirt. She prefers to spend her time in the company of men and particularly likes one named Jim, who has so far been unresponsive, even after she tried bringing him his favorite dessert, sugar-free cookies. “He’s like a stone,” she says. “I can’t move him.”

One evening a few months ago, Flushing House’s nightly poker game was shaping up to be a lively one. This is where Al fell in love with Sally. The only permanent player not in a couple was Doc, who usually deals. “Full house!” Al announced at the end of one game.

Ooh, Albert, that’s beautiful!” Sally proclaimed.

“Uh-huh. Can I have all that, please?” he asked, swooping a stack of dollar bills toward his end of the table and then looking over to Sally. “You’re rich, sugar.”

“Oh, thank you, sweetheart,” she purred.

“Oh, get me a shovel!” Rita exclaimed in mock disgust. She met her husband, Irving, a World War II vet, at an upstate weekend retreat for older singles after both of their previous spouses had died. (“We like to say they ran off together,” she says. “To heaven.”) They married in their seventies and moved to Flushing House a few years later.

Someone asked Roosevelt, who had just joined the game, why he didn’t come in to play earlier.

“I got caught on the outside with one of the residents.”

“With one of the women?” asked Irving.

“Yes. She wanted to confess to me.”

“Her love or what?” Rita smirked.

Roosevelt grinned back at her. “I don’t want anybody hanging on my arm.”

“Roosevelt, you got a line of bullshit that will sink a ship,” Irving boomed, then he suddenly grew pensive. “Let me tell you something, just to be honest with you. If I didn’t have Rita backing me …” He didn’t complete the thought, but then he didn’t need to. It was clear he relied on Rita’s care, which was why their last trip to Atlantic City had been so hard. They’d been given a room with a Jacuzzi, and Irving had wanted to get in. “I wanted the two of us to go in there to see what we could do,” he said, looking over at Rita. “But when it came to trying to get in, I couldn’t lift my foot up high enough to get over. And if I would have gotten in, how am I going to get out?”

“That was supposed to have been a handicapped room,” Rita jumped in, protectively. “It wasn’t a good room.” (A few months after I met Irving and Rita, Irving passed away.)

Sally gripped Al’s arm. Their relationship was still hot and heavy at the time. Yet when the cards were put away, they headed back to their respective rooms. No matter where they are as a couple, they’ve never spent the night together, though Al has wanted to on many occasions. “She has a really tremendous bed with pillows, beautiful linen. My bed, she almost fell out of! I had to hold her.” But Sally values her space and her rest.

From their own beds, like high-school sweethearts, they’d usually call each other from under the covers. But their conversations, as Sally recalls, were anything but sweet. “When we’d talk on the phone, I’d say, ‘If anybody is listening, their ears will burn off!’ ”

Very Legal: Sex and Love in Retirement