Grandpa needs a girlfriend: The lonely, beautiful truths of "The Golden Bachelor"

"The Golden Bachelor" is opening our eyes to love, grief and sex over 60

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 16, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

The Golden Bachelor (ABC/Craig Sjodin)
The Golden Bachelor (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

"Tonight is the first day of the rest of my life," the man says as he primps expectantly. He's successful, he's single — and the first-ever "Golden Bachelor" is a 72-year-old grandfather. But what began as a novel twist in the ever-metastasizing "Bachelor" franchise has quickly evolved into something extraordinary — a frank, bold and long overdue exploration of the hard and beautiful realities of aging in America right now.

It's undeniable that retired restaurateur Gerry Turner and his mansion full of sequined and Botoxed would-be rose recipients are culled from a very selective end of the dating pool. He may tuck in a hearing aid before his dates, but Turner is as tall, athletic and follicularly well-endowed as any of his decades-younger predecessors. His bachelorettes, all over the age of 60, are similarly lithe and glamorous. (Exactly one wears glasses.) And of course, they're all still signing up for a shot at the most traditional of relationship arrangements, one with a sparkly gem at the end of the quest. Where they diverge significantly from the typical Bachelor Nation — aside from the question of whether Gerry can actually get down on one knee and back up again — is in their shared experiences and their intimate understanding that the future looks very different when you have of much more of the past behind you.

We are barely two minutes into the first episode when Gerry is opening up and weeping about the sudden loss of his wife a few years earlier. Soon, we meet the women, who have their own tales of death, divorce and hardship. One of them is there at the urging of her best friend, who is dying of breast cancer. Before the end of the third episode, two of them have left to take care of their families back home. They talk frequently about loneliness and grief. "This show is so sad," my 19 year-old, "Bachelor" obsessive daughter marveled to me recently. And oh boy, it really is. It's also compellingly hopeful.

Watching "The Golden Bachelor," I was struck by how much of it aligned with my conversation earlier this year with author M. T. Connolly about her book, "The Measure of Our Age: Navigating Care, Safety, Money, and Meaning Later in Life." At the time, she noted the impact on all of us of our widening elder population, and the particular challenges of isolation and loneliness. "You know," Connolly told me when I chatted with her again recently, "we haven't really thought about older people as full human beings." 

One in six Americans is over the age of 65. Yet the American Psychological Association reports that 93% of Americans aged between 50 and 80 report experiencing ageism, including "assumptions… that they don’t do anything important or valuable." Our elders (except for the ones running the country) are frequently regarded as irrelevant and burdensome. Or, just as insultingly, they're infantilized as "adorable." Gerry and his hopeful aspiring girlfriends make it clear that they are not neutered shells of their former selves. Instead, they view themselves as curious, adventurous, and yeah, sexual adults who just happen to have a longer roster of life experiences and medical devices than the contestants we're accustomed to seeing on dating competitions. 

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Treva Brandon Scharf, a life, dating and relationship coach and author of “Done Being Single: A Late Bloomer’s Guide to Love," notes the specific hurdles of intimacy at an older age. "Most of the social and sexual challenges I see for our demographic have to do with feeling acknowledged, loved and accepted for who we are at the age we are," she says. "For women, you hit a certain age and suddenly you’re invisible. The looks, clicks, flirts, all stop. We're no longer seen. For men, it’s feeling wanted and needed (and useful, to an extent). People of all ages want to feel special to someone, but for people over 60, I think it takes on a deeper meaning."

"People of all ages want to feel special to someone, but for people over 60, I think it takes on a deeper meaning."

A meaning that's clicking with audiences. "The Golden Bachelor" has been so far an unqualified hit, gaining steam week to week even among viewers aged 18 - 49. That's pretty remarkable for a show that unapologetically offers a sometimes tough-to-look-at side of senior life many of us rarely get to see. "We're so segregated by age as a society. Older people can be isolated in their own houses together, or segregated with other older people," observes M. T. Connolly. What "The Golden Bachelor" offers is representation for an often invisible portion of the population, and a narrative that tells younger people that their parents and grandparents still have dreams and desires — both within and independent of their existing families. 

The show also comes at a unique moment in the graying of America, not only because the Boomers are reframing what getting older can look, feel and sound like. (Lenny Kravitz, you're nearly 60 and still getting naked, bless you.) It also almost unconsciously acknowledges the particular devastation of the pandemic on an entire generation.

"If you look at all the groups that got affected by COVID, older adults got affected the most in two ways," Christopher Scuderi, DO, a Jacksonville primary care physician, tells me. "One million Americans died, and 75% of them were 65 or older. We lost a huge proportion of people over the age of 65. But then second, among older adults, so many of them got isolated. They no longer spend time with their family, they no longer participate in social activities, worship services; they don't go to the gym. One of the challenges I'm having now is reminding them it's time to go live again. You don't have to be afraid," he says. "So I think that it's great to see this show reminding our older adults to get out there and go live. This is a big world out there." 

"We have millions of people who have a ton to give."

Connolly concurs. "We're still stuck in mores that are better attuned to lives that last 65 or 70 years, rather than 80 or 90 years," she says. "You see that in work. You'll retire at 65. And we have millions of people who have a ton to give and for whom it would be better to still have purposeful activity. Love and purpose and connection are enormously important to our physical health, our mental health, our spiritual health and engagement."

As the show progresses, I believe my daughter and her friends will see that "The Golden Bachelor" isn't some primetime trauma dump, any more than it's just some gimmicky harem house but with senior citizens. It's a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the reckoning that comes with aging, with facing the shrinking amount of time we have left and reaching for the courage to keep dreaming and planning, to keep touching and kissing. To keep getting your heart broken. To accept the reality that "Till death do you part" is not an abstract concept.

Connolly says, "I hope that this show is a conversation starter and awareness raiser. I think it's good to fill out the picture of what older people want. Wouldn't it be weird if it was reality TV that dragged aging out from under the shroud and said, 'You have to acknowledge that we're not dead''? We still have all the same desires. It's not like there's some off switch. Things change, somewhat, but not that much. We're still living, breathing human beings."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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