SACRAMENTO, Calif. —The ceremony in February seemed like a traditional celebration. One of Charlotte Benedict's sons walked her down the aisle in the Eskaton Village Carmichael auditorium, while two of Jim Jordan's sons stood up with him. A minister blessed their union.
"We had 150 people there," said Jordan, 85, a retired architect and engineer. "But we didn't have a wedding license."
It's a quiet little fact of senior residences across the country: Grandpa is living with someone else's Grandma.
In their 70s, 80s and beyond, older couples meet in seniors-only housing and live together unencumbered by marriage vows. Their relationships are committed and bonded, meant to last the rest of their lives, sometimes even informally blessed by clergy.
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According to U.S. census figures, co-habitation numbers for people 65 and older have tripled in the past decade, jumping from 193,000 in 2000 to 575,000 in 2010.
A generation or two ago, the idea of older adults living together might have been shameful, even scandalous. That's changed, in part because societal attitudes toward marriage have changed.
Only 52 percent of all American adults identified themselves as married in the 2010 census — and almost 60 percent of people age 50 and younger have lived with a partner without being married, the Pew Research Center says.
As a result, as the baby boom generation edges into old age, researchers expect co-habitation among seniors to continue to soar.
"If anything, the numbers are already considerably higher than statistics show," said Susan Brown, a Bowling Green State University sociology professor who has studied older age co-habitation for the Center for Family and Demographic Research.
Beyond the lifting of societal taboos against co-habitation, experts agree that there's one key reason that older people live together instead of tying the knot: money.
For example, a widow who receives her late husband's Social Security and pension will forfeit that income if she remarries, said Brown.
And older adults often don't want to complicate the terms of their wills by bringing new spouses into the family picture, said Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who writes about marriage.
"So they think, 'Let's be a couple but not disrupt the benefits we get or the promises we made to our children,'" he said. "I don't think it's a cultural statement. I think it's a statement about economics and inheritance."
Of course, late-life co-habitation isn't just about finances and practicality. It's also about love and the life-affirming decision to move beyond a lifetime of losses.
"As we get older, we go through tremendous losses," said Fair Oaks marriage and family therapist Helene Van Sant-Klein. "We lose parents and spouses and friends.
"Establishing an intimate relationship in older age presents another opportunity to gain connection and feel that sense of significance and belonging."
Just ask the Jordans, who are clearly delighted with one another. She adopted his surname, even though it's not legally hers. They listen to each other raptly, smiling. He pats her arm. She holds his hand.
Now 82, Charlotte moved to Eskaton Village Carmichael in 2002 when her 45-year marriage ended. She started volunteering in the center's library, and she co-founded a theater group that reads plays rather than memorizing them.
She met Jim when he joined the theater group not long after his wife died in 2008.
"I wasn't looking for anyone," Charlotte said. "Not at all. I was content."
Many older people — widows especially — echo that sentiment. For them, later life represents a time of independence. They're not interested in sacrificing their autonomy for companionship.
As Charlotte's matron of honor, Ann Stoudt, 83, who was widowed in 2003, said: "I had a husband and loved him very much. I've been there, done that. I couldn't train another one. It's too late."
But Jim Jordan was devastated by the loss of his wife of 58 years' time, and he was lonely in the Eskaton cottage they'd shared. His sons were so worried about him that they suggested he consider finding a new mate.
He started asking women to have dinner with him in the Eskaton dining room, and he slowly narrowed the field. "And finally, Charlotte was the only one," he said, patting her hand. "And then he found out I like to watch football," she replied. That sealed the deal.