What is so wrong with twilight romances?

The Straits Times | Oct 24, 1993
By: Tan Sai Siong

TWO items in last Monday's edition of The Straits Times caught my eye and stayed in my mind this past week.

One was a photograph spread over five columns of the eight-column page, showing couples who had been married for over 50 years being honoured last Saturday in Taiwan ahead of the senior citizens' week there. The women were decked out in their elaborate bridal best.

The other was a report of what an MP for Jalan Besar GRC said. Mr Peh Chin Hua, speaking at a folk dance event for the elderly over the same weekend, touched on the rise of "a new social disease" - senior citizens having extra-marital affairs.

If the two items had been carried in separate pages, they might have had less impact. But juxtaposed as they were in the same page, they turned two fleeting moments in the long lives of the old people concerned into something memorable and thought-provoking.

The picture of the Taiwanese couples affirms that marriage can last through more than five decades, even though half the world and more has changed. What Mr Peh revealed paints a somewhat different situation.
But I would be hypocritical if I do not also confess that I found the sight of grandmothers and great grandmothers dressed as brides rather distressing and bizarre.

Shades of Dickens' Miss Haversham in her cob-webbed and tattered wedding gown kept interrupting valiant attempts to convince myself how beautiful it must have been for the old to re-live a highlight in their lives in this romantic extravaganza.

But reality and honesty force me to think otherwise. Or perhaps it is the conditioning that I and my peers have been subjected to that makes us reserve certain ways of dressing and behaviour for those who have more years before than behind them. We squirm when they are adopted by those who can hope to see sunrise only in another life.

We have been conditioned to think of love and the young going together like the birds and the bees with spring-time; as for dressing, who has not used the cruel expression "mutton dressed as lamb" to describe those too old for the glad rags of the brat pack?

Sure, TV series like The Golden Girls suggest that there may be love after retirement and menopause but they are sit-coms and their messages are good for a laugh, not to be taken seriously.

Thus, it came as no surprise that while discussing this column with my editor, the usually dour Leslie Fong broke into uncharacteristic chortles, as he spluttered out: "Imagine Sai, someone romancing you at 75!"
I could think of funnier possibilities but the mirth is more to hide the embarrassment we feel at the incongruity of rheumy eyes lighting up at a face more wrinkled than a walnut shell or gnarled hands holding equally gnarled hands. They look wrong because they are not the pictures we know.

It is probably reasons like these that prompted MP Peh to highlight a bit of "hanky panky" going on in senior clubs. He cautioned that "the new disease" could affect the old folks and their families, bringing pain and suffering. For the old people, it would not be worth the trouble, he added.

Mr Peh's comments are sensible and proper. The only trouble I have with them is that they are directed only at the old. If adultery - or even flirtation - is out for the old who are married, it should also be out for the young and middle-aged of the same status.

But nary a word did he utter about them. Is one to believe that no such impropriety exists except between the silver-headed? Those who believe this must be naive.

The conclusion one is forced to draw is that the young could indulge without open condemnation whereas the old will be censured. But why should the young escape?

If the elderly with a glad eye and roving hands have to be shown up because they "are role models to the young", then the morals of younger parents - who are no less role models for their children - should be subjected to equal scrutiny.

But if their bedroom morals are not pored over by zealous politicians, then senior citizens "who have contributed to nation-building" have a similar right to privacy on how they conduct their personal relationships.

Perhaps the middle-aged will be less scandalised on discovering that their grey-haired parents can be as frisky as their own twentysomething children, if they can accept that emotions do not always fade with the colour of the hair.

However, for such understanding to become more widespread, most of today's adults would have to change the way they view old people. That change will have arrived only when talk about heart problems of senior
citizens does not bring cardiologists and by-passes to mind immediately and invariably.

That change must come, because before this generation's young parents become grand-parents, one in four Singaporeans will be over 60. There will be more people living longer and leading more active lives. There
will be more social inter-mingling, with which will come opportunities to meet the opposite sex and dream the impossible or even do the unthinkable.

With that, I predict there will be more cases like those cited by Mr Peh surfacing.

Then what? Have moral classes for senior citizens? Keep warning them of the dire consequences? I am sure they are well aware since they were not born yesterday and have "eaten" more salt than their critics have rice. In my view, energy at reforming what may be perceived as the wayward elderly could be better and more kindly directed at ensuring that their young will be there to provide a shoulder to lean on should their twilight romances come to grief.

Until we reach our own twilight, we may not appreciate fully how frightening it can be for those who have only a vast rolling eternity before them. And confronted by Andrew Marvell's certainty that "the grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace", it is not surprising that some will want to have one last fling before the dark envelopes them entirely. The least those who have more days ahead of them can do is to show some understanding.