Aging and sex – what do we really want?

Recently over coffee, a friend complained that none of her friends seemed to want to talk about their sex lives any more.  Bear in mind, we are both hovering around 70.  You might be thinking: of course your peers don’t want to talk about their non-existent sex lives.

And you would be wrong.  Several of my aging women friends have healthy libidos and a strong sense of themselves as sexual people.  But they are sad that health issues get in the way.

Despite my friend’s regret that her friends did not want to open up, because I am a sexual health educator, other women have been very chatty with me.

“I miss it”, said one.  “It’s not like we aren’t loving with each other, but I miss sex, the way we used to enjoy it.

“I feel a sense of loss”, said another.  Because of my partner’s medication, his libido is completely gone.  He is happy to please me when I initiate, but it feels so one-sided”.

“We’ve worked something out,” said a woman whose husband is disabled due to a stroke.  In other words, they have figured out how to be sexual by getting around the impediments.

“My partner is like a teenager.  In his early ‘70s, he is ready – and able – at any time.”

“When my husband was in his early ‘80s, he found that he was unable to have an orgasm after his prostate surgery, so intercourse went on too long and too painfully.  We finally just gave it up.”

When I told one of my friends that I wanted to quote her in this article, she wrote:

“I would add that it isn’t just “health” issues per se that gets in the way, but our naturally aging bodies.  I don’t consider my thinning vaginal wall that makes sex painful a health issue as much as one of the unfortunate consequences of my body – at this age, biologically speaking – not needing so much estrogen anymore.”

Quite the range of responses.  And I haven’t even asked my lesbian friends.

What does the research say?

I have written before about sexuality and aging  as well as the “joys” of online dating and the sexual pleasures of aging.  I have given workshops on the issue and spoken at conferences, but I can’t seem to let this topic go.  And the personal stories are so compelling.

The studies tell their own stories.

“One such study noted that, “61% of all women in this cohort were satisfied with their overall sex life. Although older age has been described as a significant predictor of low sexual satisfaction, the percentage of…sexually satisfied women actually increased with age, with approximately half of the women over 80 years old reporting sexual satisfaction almost always or always.” This confirmed an earlier study by the National Council on Aging which concluded, “Seventy-four percent of the sexually active men and 70% of the sexually active women reported being as satisfied or even more satisfied with their sexual lives than they were in their 40s.”

And lest we forget, no matter how we define “sex”, intimacy generally trumps sensation.  Alex McKay of SIECCAN  said in a talk on mid-life sex and STIs, that there was, in his opinion, a “six-minute rule”.  Quoting a study on heterosexual use of condoms, he said 71% of women who had 6 – 10 minutes of post sex affectionate behaviour rated their last penis in vagina (PIV) intercourse as ‘very pleasurable’ as opposed to 44% of women who experienced 0 – 5 minutes.

Health Canada is encouraging us to carry on as is the Canadian Public Health Association.

“Along with better health and active aging comes sex! A nationally representative sample of 3,005 Americans between 57 and 85 years of age revealed that nearly three quarters of seniors aged 57 to 64 were sexually active; while more than half of seniors aged 65 to 74 and more than a quarter aged 75 to 85 reported being sexually active.”

However, medication can interfere with one’s sex life at any age.  For example, “currently available antidepressants may aggravate sexual dysfunction and make depression worse, a new survey of US adults with major depressive disorder (MDD) suggests.”

There are other meds that can get in the way of sexual functioning.

And people get scared to become “active” after an illness like a heart attack.

“Although most younger patients are sexually active 1 year after an acute MI [AMI], one in 15 women and one in 20 men never resume one of life’s greatest pleasures, a new report finds.”

Tell me what you want, what you really, really want

Another factor in maintaining sexual relationships into our ‘70s and ‘80s may be loss of interest, especially for those in long-term relationships.  Like lesbian bed death, for heterosexuals, the statistics are just a bit less “drastic”.

Then there are those older people having great sex, by which I mean at least connection and intimacy.  Others may be having more PIV sex because of erectile dysfunction medication, which may bring its own problems, like oppressive demands.  According to a study  back in 2003, “few studies have focused on the possible detrimental effects for women of Viagra use within a heterosexual relationship”.

“We argue that while previous medically-oriented research in this area has generally assumed an unproblematic link between Viagra use and the resumption of penetrative sex within heterosexual relationships, more attention needs to be paid to partners’ perspectives and desires, and to the specific dynamics of any given relationship.”

One wonders which people would choose: great sex without intimacy or intimacy without full sexual functioning.

I guess we want it all.  Love.  Intimacy.  Good sex, however we define “sex”.

Surely when there is open communication and a willingness to please, there is pleasure to be had.  If we see ourselves as desirable, some of that can translate into – if not desire and the mechanics that go with it – at least the desire to please.  And while some of us are wistful, others may be envious of others’ good fortune, however much of it “all” we have.

I look forward to hearing your stories.

Here are some disability resources that may be useful to people who are aging.

Nails, babies and bodies – oh, my!

What do manis and pedis have to do with reproductive health?  And how does this work affect the women who do your nails?

If you’ve ever entered or even passed by a nail salon, you probably noticed a smell that blasts your nostrils.  If you stay for a treatment, the smell slowly dissipates while you pamper your fingers and toes.

What you are smelling is toxins.  Nail salon technicians also get used to the smell – olfactory blindness – as they handle cosmetic products that are harmful to their skin, their respiratory systems and their reproductive health.

I recently trained a group of nail salon technicians as peer educators.  They will teach other workers about the reproductive health effects of the toxic products they use.

The Toronto Healthy Nail Salon Network, an association of nail salon technicians and health advocates, invited me to continue the peer education work they started last year.  Taking the lead from advocates in the US, they invited a trainer to arm nail salon workers with information, gloves and cream,  and to go forth into nail salons across the city and teach their sister workers about the effects on their skin of the chemicals they use.

Now skin is one thing; reproductive health is another.  It is easy enough to see reddened, cracked fingers and hands.  It is another to make the connection between these products and adverse effects on  pregnancies, fetal and children’s health.

I began preparing my workshops nearly a year ago.  As time went on, I realized that not only did I have to learn about these chemicals and their effects, I also had to raise workers’ comfort level talking about sexuality (easy enough), explain birth control methods available in Canada (no problem), walk them through the available research on the potential effects on their reproductive systems (a challenging slog) and teach them how to pass on all of the above to their peers.

One of the main challenges is to offer information which is not yet definitive.  In other words, the research is clear about the potential effects of these toxins, but little research has been done on nail salon technicians themselves.

The only possible message: there is a problem; and workers need to try to reduce their risks in the workplace.

The “toxic trio”

The nail polishes you – and they – use may contain solvents including the “toxic trio” (formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate).

Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, associated with low birth weight in several studies and reduced fertility.

Toluene is an endocrine disruptor.

We pored over an illustration of the endocrine system and learned that breathing in high levels in pregnancy can cause birth defects, slow growth and retard mental abilities of offspring.  There is also an increased risk of reduced fertility and spontaneous abortion.

Dibutyl phthalate is also an endocrine disruptor.  Research on mice has shown female reproductive toxicity (birth defects and reduced birth weight), problems in male genital development and potential permanent effects on development of the central nervous system.

You can read more here.

Many workers in nail salons have heard stories about friends who had trouble getting pregnant or who had multiple miscarriages.  Ideally, nail salon technicians should be able to plan their pregnancies for times when they are not working.  But one of the reasons they work in these risky entry level jobs is because they have to.  New immigrants often have few choices.  They need the money.

There are other issues.  One peer educator asked, “How do I know how long these toxins stay in my body?”

I explained the precautionary principle .  If the women they see want to plan their pregnancies, these peers can now knowledgeably discuss all the birth control methods available, as well as access to abortion.  I suggested that if it was at all possible, they might encourage these women to consider planning a pregnancy for a time when they were not working in a nail salon.

I enjoyed asking the peers about the birth control methods they had used in their home countries of Viet Nam and China.  Of course, it was especially interesting to hear about the one child policy in China as well as attitudes towards abortion.  In their anonymous written questions, like most women, they wanted to know about the safety of birth control pills and which was the best method (one that works and suits you best).  They also wanted to know about the availability and cost of abortion.  The most difficult question was how to demonstrate the effects of toxins on women’s reproductive systems.  Again, all they can really offer is risk reduction.

Reduce the risk

When they go out to speak with nail technicians in salons across the city, they will have brochures in Vietnamese and Chinese which suggest the following:

  • Don’t use products with formaldehyde.
  • Don’t use nail polish removers with acetone.
  • Don’t use nail polish thinners with toluene.

They will further recommend to nail salon technicians:

  • close bottles when you are not using them
  • put garbage with chemicals in a closed bag
    • throw the bag in a garbage with a lid
    • close the lid and keep it closed
  • try to take work breaks away from your work station
  • go outside for fresh air if you can
  • open doors and windows and use fans to increase air circulation
  • do not eat at your work station or near chemicals
  • do not wear jewelry where chemicals and water can stay
  • wash your clothes when you get home

And what about you?  If you love your fingernail and toenail polish, or your artificial nails, you have two options: do it at home with less toxic products, keeping your windows open; or encourage your local nail salon to adopt the risk reduction strategies above.  If more patrons insist on safer working conditions, it will increase the safety for all.