What The Golden Bachelor Gets Right About Older Adult Dating
Caution: Spoilers ahead!
I study the dating experiences of single older adults. In recent months, this has meant that every person I know has reached out to tell me about this hot new show on ABC, The Golden Bachelor. The latest spin-off in The Bachelor franchise, The Golden Bachelor features Gerry, a 72-year-old widower and grandfather looking for the (second) love of his life. As an avid viewer of reality shows, I was very excited for the series to begin. But as a scholar researching older adult dating, I was also a bit nervous. Looking for love in later life is a unique experience. Would the show get it right?
There has been no shortage of criticism directed toward The Golden Bachelor, including concerns about the show’s lack of diversity and reliance on stereotypes. Although I largely agree with these critiques, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the show presents a pretty accurate depiction of how family relationships—especially the care many older adults provide for their children and grandchildren—shape older adult dating.
In my recent study based on 100 interviews with single older adults, I found that family caregiving responsibilities and relationships could pose a significant barrier to older adult repartnering, particularly among older women. I found that men in my study were typically uninterested in dating women who provided care for their families (e.g., babysitting grandchildren), as these men assumed women would put their children and grandchildren first. And indeed, The Golden Bachelor highlights the tensions that often emerge between older women’s family responsibilities and their romantic prospects.
Two women, Marina and Joan, chose family caregiving responsibilities over Gerry, forgoing the possibility of a lasting relationship with him. First, Marina left the show very early, and it was later revealed that she left to attend to a family matter. Then, in the middle of episode four, Joan tearfully decided to leave the show to support her daughter, who had recently given birth. Joan stated that, “once you’re a mom, you’re always a mom,” and told Gerry she needed to go home, “to be a mom.” Gerry was disappointed she chose to leave, but he supported her decision. In contrast, when faced with a similar choice, Sandra chose to prioritize her prospects with Gerry over her role as a mother, missing her daughter’s wedding in order to be on the show—and was praised by Gerry for doing so. Marina, Joan, and Sandra’s experiences illustrate the caregiving role many older women play and that these responsibilities can affect opportunities for repartnering in later life.
In a similar vein, recent episodes of The Golden Bachelor mirror my research finding that geographical proximity to family is a major constraint in older adult dating. Many of my respondents were seeking a geographically close partner because they did not want to move away from family. The Golden Bachelor began to address this in episode six, when Gerry met the families of the final three women. When Gerry met with Theresa’s family, her daughter called attention to the fact that Theresa was “here every day, pretty much. So, we see her a lot. She’s part of our lives. We are a very close-knit family.” Theresa’s daughter went on to say that “it would be challenging” if her mother were to relocate to be with Gerry. Faith expressed similar concerns about relocating, stating, “I feel such a pull to be close to my sons. I want to make sure my kids know that at any time they need me, that I’m going to be there for them.” Gerry did not offer to relocate (he has adult children and grandchildren of his own), and only stated, “I’m not sure how we’re going to reconcile that.” Tellingly, he did not give Faith a rose. In a later episode, he asked Leslie, “How do you think our life would look with respect to how we would live and where we would live?” She did not have a clear response but was sure they could “figure it out.” “You said the magic words,” Gerry responded, “’We can figure it out.’”At the heart of these discussions is an issue most single young adults do not face—will older adults move away from their children and grandchildren for a partner? Family responsibilities and attachments can make geographic proximity a necessity, especially among older women who are more likely to perform family caregiving. In my research, as in The Golden Bachelor, we see single older adults grapple with finding love while also keeping close and rewarding relationships with their families.
What my research shows—and what The Golden Bachelor begins to illustrate, as well—is the central role families continue to play in older adult partnering. Historically, parents were influential in their children’s partner selection. For older adults today, the direction of influence is reversed: both directly and indirectly, children and grandchildren influence older adults’ partnering trajectories. Single older adults are not an island on the dating market (a Love Island, one might say—oh wait, that’s a different dating show). Rather, they are embedded in family networks that often rely on their caregiving and are affected by their romantic decisions.
Lauren Harris is in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire. She studies family, gender, and aging.