Loretta Gatzke met Stan Connell playing bridge at the Bob Gilmore Senior Center in Killeen in 2008, just two years after she lost her husband of 63 years to Alzheimer’s disease.
Much to the chagrin of family and friends, the 92-year-old woman chose romance over living out her days as a widow, a choice that doctors believe may increase her longevity and protect her body from maladies such as heart disease and stroke.
Recent studies on health and aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch indicate that maintaining a love life into old age is a major factor in physical health.
Power of happiness
Glenn Ostir, professor of internal medicine-geriatrics at UTMB Sealy Center on Aging in Galveston has authored many studies on what he calls “positive emotion” or happiness.
His studies identify dramatic differences between men and women 65 and older who had been alone for many years and those who had maintained romantic relationships late into their lives.
One study surveyed 1,200 elderly stroke victims over a 10-year period at 16 rehab centers across the country.
The fastest recoveries were found in those who maintained positive purpose in life, Ostir said.
“What we have found, in general, is that people who say that they truly are happy — have high positive emotion — reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke,” Ostir said. “We have found that there is a two-fold decrease in risk.”
The findings, which remain true across racial and ethnic lines, showed that romantic support was a major factor in a person’s health, Ostir said.
For decades each spring, Carl Gatzke would come in the back door of his family’s home with the first rose from the garden hidden behind his back as a surprise for his wife.
“He was a perfect husband,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
Loretta Gatzke, who worked in the finance department at Fort Hood for 31 years and is a mother of two, was prone to worrying and her husband’s positive attitude was her refuge in difficult times.
“It is very difficult to lose your mate because you have the companionship and when it stops just like that it’s a shock to your system,” Gatzke said.
When Gatzke announced she had a new companion, one of her friends detested it, asking Gatzke, “How could you do that to Carl?”
“He’s not taking Carl’s place,” Gatzke said. “It’s a separate place.”
Gatzke, who fell into depression shortly after her husband’s death, said, “One day, I realized I need someone to love me.”
Now Gatzke and Connell live at Rosewood Retirement Home in Killeen.
They live in separate rooms but spend most of the day together holding hands, playing cards and sharing in the full spectrum of emotions associated with love.
Romantic support benefits those who have it because it contains several types of support within it: emotional support, tangible support and companionship, Ostir said.
“One of the key ingredients in this is emotional support,” Ostir said. “The person feels that they are cared for, loved, and there is a certain amount of trust that’s been built up in this relationship.”
Romantic partners also benefit from tangible support, which consists of concrete ways that people help each other, such as unpacking groceries or gardening.
Companionship — just having someone to talk to — allows a person to cope better by making them feel like they are not alone in their problems.
“You can adapt to situations better knowing that you have this person with you,” Ostir said.
Unless these types of support are found in other ways, enduring years and years without them can take its toll on the perennial bachelors and bachelorettes.
Men tend to do better in marriage then men who are not married, Ostir said.
“People in nursing homes are often lonely because they no longer have a partner,” Ostir said.
“They may have someone at the nursing home doing stuff for them, like bringing them their meals, but that’s different than the emotional support of companionship that’s built up through the years.”
But marriage alone is not automatically protective, Ostir said. Marriage has pitfalls too.
Barbara Gills, 85, said she was always unlucky in love.
“I had some bad husbands,” said Gills, who was married three times. “I was depressed a lot.”
Gills has given up on finding a soul mate. Her best friend is a small book of puzzles she keeps in the purse she has hanging at the arm of her wheelchair.
Ten years ago, Gills fell on her kitchen floor, enfeebled from the waist down, and she did not have anyone to call. She has since moved into Rosewood full-time and receives help from her daughter.
She agrees that the tempestuous relationships of her life have taken their toll on her body. Arthritis has taken away the use of her legs.
“As far as falling was concerned, I will never get over that,” Gills said. “It was very lonely to be just helpless like that.”
Gills’ daughter, one of three children she raised with her first husband, visits her often at Rosewood, she said, but she still remembers how difficult it was to be alone.
“When I was quiet, I could feel it hurting inside,” Gills said.
Even in marriage, many times Gills said she felt she was alone.
“We are saying that being in a good relationship is good for your health, but being in an unhealthy relationship causes stress and stress we know is really bad for you,” Ostir said.
“If you are in a relationship where you are constantly arguing — about money or whatever — that takes a toll on a person’s stress we know very well is bad for you.”
Although many factors contribute to physical health, including heredity, environment, cultural influences, diet and exercise, whether good or bad, emotions greatly affect the body’s physical health.
The phenomenon is explained by basic neurology — brain chemicals, hormones and neurotransmitters — how emotions either insult or soothe the human body.
“By being happy you reach homeostasis,” Ostir said. “It is an equilibrium which keeps your body constant and calm. When a person is in a bad relationship; however, their body is not calm and as a result the brain releases harmful chemicals.”
Overtime those chemicals trigger inflammation and cause constant trauma to delicate organs in the body, such as the heart, brain or stomach. Stress chemicals can cause heart attacks, strokes or ulcers, Ostir said.
“Similarly, being happy and content causes the non-release of these chemicals and the release of other chemicals that have a protective effect on your body,” Ostir said. “It works both ways.”
While some health issues may be outside of our control, Ostir, who is — not surprisingly — a very happy person, reminds people that they have a choice when it comes to their mental and physical health.
“For a large part we do have control on how we walk through life and going through life as optimistically and positive as we can will build up our level of resilience,” Ostir said. “Things do happen in life but it is how you deal with these things that helps you move forward.”