People with learning disabilities getting married is becoming more accepted, but it is a good thing that they also get divorced, says Alex McClimens.

Here's a cheery stat to brighten your day and make you look at your parents with fresh respect: did you know that the divorce rate is rising fastest among those couples aged 60 and over? Bet you didn't. Apparently it’s to do with increased longevity. Back in the day most of us died a few years after we retired. Now (thank you very much, NHS) we're all living better and longer. So if you're approaching your senior years and are fed up with the way she will insist on folding your napkin in front of the maid or, ladies, if the way he drinks the Bollinger out of a chipped mug is irritating beyond belief then maybe it's worth thinking about a phone call to the family solicitor. If not, you may have 20 more years of that kind of behaviour to put up with. Minimum. You'd get less for murder but then the food's not as good.

And, of course, where we go then people with learning disabilities will surely follow. Because increased longevity applies across the entire population. Sure the mean age on death for the learning disability population as a whole is lower than 'average' but it could be worse – you could be living in Rotherham. But I digress. 

People with learning disabilities have been getting married for a while now. It's not exactly an everyday thing but it's more common than it used to be. And I think we'd all agree that this is a 'good thing'. Hey, I'll tell you how cool I am – I even know a gay married couple who have learning disabilities. Yeah. So there. 

Such levels of tolerance suggest that stigma around relationships between people with learning disabilities is much reduced. And for those with long memories, marriage is one of those socially valued roles that Wolfensberger went on about. So two and a half cheers for liberal, relaxed, socially chilled Britain. If we can just sort out hate crime, Channel 5 and private education this may yet become a land fit for heroes.

But the numbers don't lie. And for as long as people choose to express their love through the commitment implicit within the institution of marriage then divorce lawyers won't go hungry any day soon. I know whereof I speak. And yes, some people with learning disabilities who get married also end up divorcing. And I think this too is a 'good thing' because it demonstrates an ability to engage with the available mechanisms that help to structure society. In a way it's like watching the Mental Capacity Act in motion. We all must be accorded the right to make a well-informed but bad decision now and again. That said, the electorate of Sheffield Hallam constituency tested this to the limits at the last general election.

And staying here in Sheffield those good people at the Case Register have compiled some data on the subject of marriage in the learning disability population. And guess what, more than half of those who have subsequently divorced are in the age range 50-70. It seems you just can't keep a good social trend down. And if you're interested the Office for National Statistics has good data on divorce rates in the overall population.

Now I'm not normally one for number crunching but sometimes a good graph is worth a thousand words (I may even ask the Dan the ed if I can submit a table or chart instead of prose for the next column). But if we're serious about providing the best care for people with learning disabilities then it makes sense to look at population trends because no one is immune to the socio-economic processes that dictate so much of our behaviour on the planet. If we know what's killing us (and we do) then it makes sense to take preventive action. Health checks can help here. If we can see, for example, that sugar is implicated in bad oral health and contributes to obesity then we can make a better argument for cutting it out of our diets.

But we all need some sweetness in our lives. And if people can find that in a life partner then 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments'. Now don't say you don't get a classical education reading this column*. And happy 400th WS.

*For those interested, here is a link to Sonnet 116

About the author

Alex McClimens began working with people with learning disabilities in Edinburgh in the 1980s. He then went to Sheffield where he spent time in community services before moving into teaching. He currently works in the Centre for Health & Social Care Research at Sheffield Hallam University, where he divides his week between scholarly activity and contributing to student placement experience.