Down the Aisle, Into the Sunset

Chicago Tribune

When Norma Glasser, 80, moved into a retirement community in August 2004, the last thing she was looking for was romance. Her daughter was desperately ill with breast cancer, and she had already buried two husbands.

"I thought that part of my life was over," she said. "But I've learned two things: Love does not know an age, and ... the word 'never' should be struck from the dictionary."

On July 15 she wed Arnold Badesch, 89, a widower from three floors below, surrounded by family, friends and 230 other residents in suburban Lincolnwood.

"I would definitely say we know what it takes to have a successful marriage," said the groom, who is tying the knot with 61 years of previous experience.

It was the first wedding at Lincolnwood Place, where the median age is 82.

Compared with other age groups, the number of senior citizens marrying is statistically small. But as average life expectancy continues to rise, so may the number of people making a trip to the altar, experts said.

"What it means to be old is getting redefined even as we speak," said Dr. Sharon Brangman, a geriatrician and board member of the American Geriatric Society. "People are arriving into old age more physically and cognitively intact than ever before. We are challenging a lot of the stereotypes about this age group -- such as they don't have any desire to marry or be sexual -- and that will only be amplified by the coming wave of baby boomers."

In 2001, 1.7% of all newlyweds were over age 65; five years later, that figure had climbed to 2.4%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Florida, a state with a large elderly population, couples over age 80 applied for about 200 marriage licenses last year, up from 34 in 1980.

But the only numbers that concerned Glasser and Badesch were all the guests and how to squeeze them into Lincolnwood Place's auditorium.

"The wedding has been the buzz all week," said Regina Maniaci, the activity director. "People are going a little crazy."

At 5 p.m., the beaming bride, wearing a cream pantsuit and carrying a single rose, walked down the aisle on the arm of her grandson, Jeff Fleming, 24.

Badesch was nattily attired in a navy blazer and white pants, and his son, Roger, was his best man.

After living in Evanston for almost half a century, Badesch had moved into the Lincolnwood Place complex in November 2003 with his wife, Sophie. She died of liver cancer four months later.

"When she was sick, she said, 'You'll have all these women chasing after you.' I told her, 'No way will I marry again.' " Badesch said. "But never did I think I'd meet someone like Norma."

Glasser had lost two husbands -- the first in 1966, the second in 1981. Her daughter Jacqueline, a special-education teacher, died in June 2005. After so much sadness, everyone was giddy at such a joyous occasion, nibbling hors d'oeuvres and sipping champagne.

The relationship started as a friendship. Badesch and Glasser worked together because he was president of the resident council and she was vice president. Last summer, they began keeping company near Northwestern University, gazing out at Lake Michigan while sharing their pasts.

Then one day, sitting in the front seat of his car, Badesch leaned over and gave her a kiss. Alas, his smooth move was thwarted by the armrest -- an understandable gaffe, considering that he hadn't wooed anyone since World War II.

Just the same, Glasser returned the gesture.

He proposed three times before she agreed.

"I just wasn't sure it was what I wanted at this stage," she said.

But in April, the time was right. They were visiting her family in New Jersey when they announced their engagement.

"I want you folks to know that I asked Norma to marry me and she said yes," Badesch told them.

Although the ceremony was the first in the 15-year history of Lincolnwood Place, weddings are becoming more common in long-term care communities, said Paul Williams, director of state public policy for Assisted Living Federation of America.

"We've been hearing about it more and more, and [it's] something we expect to grow," he said.

Independent and assisted-living communities, with communal dining, outings and entertainment, provide more opportunities for social interaction than in the past.

"It's a great catalyst for romance," Williams said.

Badesch said, "I don't have a spring in my step, because I have a bum knee. But it does make me feel 20 or 30 years younger."

The bride must give up her vice president post, but she joked about being first lady.

"To put out my hand and have someone take it? Well, I can't describe how wonderful that feels," Glasser said.

"When you get right down to it, there's just no substitute for love."

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