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Commitments : Who needs a ring? Many middle-aged couples say they don't.

August 15, 1994|PAULA LYNN PARKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I was once introduced as the woman he sleeps with," Silvia, 49, of Topanga said of her relationship with the man she has lived with for six years.

Silvia, a novelist raised in Peru, said maridos --a Spanish word she defines as a couple who have a committed relationship but aren't necessarily married--best describes her relationship with the 63-year-old university professor.

"Marriage is for having children. When you're in another stage of life, marriage doesn't seem relevant," said Silvia, who was married once and has two grown daughters. She asked that her last name not be used.

Added her marido : "The relationship quality is shaped less by public ritual or legal binds. What touches us is the quality of day-to-day living."

They are one of about 500,000 couples in California who live together without benefit of marriage, according to 1990 Census data. Unlike younger couples testing a relationship or senior citizens trying to retain larger retirement benefits, many middle-age couples are motivated by fear or denial, experts say. They are afraid of repeating the pain of a past, failed marriage or hope to set the clock back by assuming a younger lifestyle, the experts add.

While about half of those cohabitants in their late 40s to early 60s eventually marry, those who don't face potentially troubling legal ramifications.

For one thing, domestic partners cannot visit their loved one in hospital intensive care units nor speak for the patient regarding resuscitation instructions or organ donations. Also, funeral homes will release a body only to a spouse or blood relative.

Silvia, who was not aware of these facts, called it absurd, and added: "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it.

"I don't see us being separated except by death," she said. "Still, I don't intend to marry him. . . . We've joked about marrying, but when we really think about it, neither one wants to get married. I've come to the point where I don't feel marriage means anything."

Yet there are options short of marriage. An unmarried couple can, with an attorney, execute a "durable power of attorney for health care." This will enable the designated person to make specified health care decisions in case the individual is unable to.

"You can give instructions for all kinds of things to happen if you only take the time," said Jack Rameson, an attorney with Rehwald, Rameson, Lewis and Glasner in Woodland Hills, who specializes in probate, trust and estate planning.

"Anyone who is living together has got to sit down and document what their wishes are" through any number of general or specific powers of attorney, he said.

A durable power of attorney for health care can be executed with a lawyer for $25 to $100, depending on how complicated it is, said Rameson, adding that forms from the California Medical Assn. can be obtained for substantially less. Many hospitals give them out free.

Sometimes denial keeps couples from putting their wishes in writing.

"Certainly as we get older, the likelihood of physical illness increases. These are issues of greater and greater importance. Basically, (these couples) are not looking at it," said Dr. Gary Small, a geriatric psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine.

"Living in sin after 50 is a way of denying the reality of aging," Small added.

Seen in another light, these middle-age couples may feel invigorated because they've adopted a lifestyle associated with youth, he said.

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In fact, it is because young people made living together so fashionable in the '60s that it is more acceptable for middle-age people to do it now. For many, living together feels free and independent--not governed by society's rules, Silvia and her mate said.

The couples interviewed said they got few if any snickers or dirty looks from friends, parents or children. One couple said they each had a grown child who was living with someone, so those children were in no position to criticize. Silvia said her married, 24-year-old daughter took a dim view of living together on moral grounds, although it didn't "interfere with (their) relationship."

Experts say mature couples are often in a good position to evaluate their best living situation. Psychologists and sociologists point to the fact that living with someone offers a support system with companionship and affection that improves the quality of a middle-age person's life.

Often, living together is the choice because memories of nasty divorces and court battles are still fresh, experts and couples say.

"One way to avoid dealing with those issues of intimacy is to not commit the way you would if you got married," Small said.

Gene McGregor, 52, of Bakersfield said he hasn't "had luck with committed relationships." So after three divorces, McGregor, a maintenance worker with Kern County's Park and Recreation department, has opted to live with Pat Shanley, 60, a medical office manager.

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