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When Mom or Dad finds new love in the golden years

Frank Sinatra crooned that love is lovelier the second time around. And maybe it is, as long as it's not your own mom or dad who's found someone new.

When that happens, it doesn't matter if a child is 6 or 60, experts say. The revelation can be a shocker.

"The first question you ask is, 'Who is this person?' " says Washington, D.C., psychologist Doree Lynn. "The next question you ask is, 'How is it going to affect me?' "

To family members, especially children, a new romance is fraught with peril: The family dynamic might be affected; personality clashes could develop; and, in what many see as a worst-case scenario, family members might be cut out of the will or have to share in an inheritance.

But spring fever doesn't just strike the young; seniors can develop a virulent case too. More than 500,000 adults over 50 marry each year, say academics. Many others strike up close relationships with new partners. And children rarely get a vote in the matter.

A friend of mine says she has mixed feelings about the new man in her mom's life: a thrice-married magician she met on a cruise. My friend originally liked the new relationship because her mother was happier, but she says her family is going crazy now because the magician practices on them all the time.

Psychologist Lynn confronted a similar problem when her father met someone new after her mom died. Her solution: Bite the bullet. "I applauded the relationship even though I was not very fond of the woman."

After my mom died, my 82-year-old dad met a perky seventysomething brunet at the senior center, and before long he was waltzing her around dance floors throughout the county and taking her on bus trips to happening places (if you're an octogenarian) like the Lawrence Welk Village in Escondido.

He had been devoted to my mom during a long illness, and I enjoyed seeing him getting out and making new friends, but at the same time, it was disquieting. Maybe even a little creepy.

I'd seen him kiss her; was there more going on? The thought boggled.

"Children of all ages, even if they're 50 or more themselves and sexually active, can't imagine their parents having sex," says Lynn, author of "Sex for Grownups," a between-the-sheets look at the sex habits of older adults.

"People have a need for human connection. Sexuality is the gift that keeps on giving," she says.

My dad's romance was cut short when his new girlfriend had a stroke and was placed in a convalescent home by her daughter. We visited her, but she didn't remember him. That brought a sad ending to my concern about the romance.

The money issue

Intertwined with the sex issue is a far more complicated subject: money. One of the nation's most-talked-about cases involved Anna Nicole Smith, a model and one-time Playmate of the Year, and billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, a Texas oil tycoon. Smith was 26 when she met Marshall, then 89, at a strip club and married him; he died 14 months later. The legal battle for his fortune reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Smith, who died in 2007, was accused of being a gold-digger. But gold-diggers come in all shapes and sizes, say adult children who have come in contact with them.

"I think older women are the worst," says Orange County resident Wendi Rothman. "They only have one more chance to strike it rich." Rothman acknowledges her perspective might be warped by an incident involving her parents. During her mother's long hospitalization with cancer, she was frequently visited by a manicurist, who tidied up her mom's nails and consoled her dad at the same time. After her mother died, the manicurist moved in with her dad.

"She put a lot of pressure on him to buy a new house and put her name on the deed with his," says Rothman. "One weekend she gave him an ultimatum: 'I'm going away for the weekend. Buy the house or when I come back I'm moving out.'"

Rothman's dad asked her what to do; he didn't want to continue the relationship. "So I showed up at the house with a moving van and we took all of her things out," Rothman says.

The manicurist lost the war but picked one more fight: "She sued us for damaging her stuff. It was always all about money with her."

'Legacy' imperiled

Educator Sande Harte has heard it all before, and sympathizes.

"Children anticipate an estate of some kind will be passed down to them and their children," says Harte, who is chairwoman of the department of sociology, social work and gerontology at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles. "They look at it as their legacy. It's very difficult for them to watch that legacy dissipate through silly expenditures."

And it happens frequently, she says. "Older people want to be loved; they want to be special to someone, and a predator can easily take advantage of that vulnerability."

What can a concerned child do?

"You can plead with them; you can explain to them that it will have a long-term impact on their children and grandchildren, but unless you can prove incompetency -- which is hard to do -- there really isn't anything you can do," she says.

And there's a danger that making your case too strongly will damage your relationship with your parent, she adds. "You risk creating a rift and may be waving goodbye to any inheritance."

Psychologist Lynn's solution to the problem? "Grown-ups should be grown-ups and have a prenup" -- a prenuptial agreement or contract that protects assets.

And she doesn't think children should be embarrassed about stressing the importance of such an agreement. She advises patients to have a frank discussion and let parents know their concerns.

"Everybody's afraid to talk to their parents about money, and it's such an important issue. Tell them you want them to be happy. But also tell them that they need a prenup."

McClure's column on caring for and staying connected with aging parents appears monthly. For past installments, click to the "It's All Relative" archive.

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