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.

When sex gets boring – September 5, 2014

I guess it depends on what you call “sex,” but sexual routines, even when they work, can become repetitive.

Although you may get off with partnered sex, you may also find yourself observing your pleasure rather than mindfully enjoying it. Author Carol Shields called it, “going through the motions of love.” If the running internal commentary sounds like this: “Now they’re going to move to the other nipple; now they’re going to check to see if I’m wet…” it doesn’t sound like fun. Recognizing that it’s no fun is a good place to start.

When boredom sets in, it may affect frequency of sexual contact, resulting in a discrepancy of desire in the couple. Of course, there may already be other relationship issues requiring attention. Avoidance, or a shoulder shrugging “let’s get it over with” attitude; or worse, the possibility of a real or implied threat of coercive sex, may lead to the end of the relationship entirely.

An article in The Walrus quotes the 2011 Canadian Living Intimacy Survey regarding frequency and mismatched desire. The study found that 53 per cent of Canadians would like to have sex a few times a week, but that 39 per cent are having sex a few times a month, and even less for 23 per cent of people surveyed. Amy Muise is lead author on the paper, Keeping the Spark Alive: Being Motivated to Meet a Partner’s Sexual Needs Sustains Sexual Desire in Long-Term Romantic Relationships which discusses this decline of sexual desire over the course of a relationship. The authors suggest that when desire decreases, couples should focus more on their partner’s needs. They call this “communally oriented sex” or “communal motivation:” “Being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs is beneficial to the self.” This approach differs from simply being accommodating; it means actively seeking to find out more about your partner’s needs, which involves better and more specific communication.

So let’s talk–about fun. Fun often includes excitement. I’ve sometimes wondered why some people find sexual role play so alluring. Then it struck me: it’s the ultimate “let’s pretend” that we enjoyed as children. It may bring back the thrill we get with a new partner and a new situation.

So, let’s pretend that you are with someone who may be open to a new game. How do you raise it? If you have always been sexually frank, it won’t be a problem. But if shyness and embarrassment are part of the reason you have not been able to say that you are bored with your routine, you may welcome a few tricks. In a professional workshop I attended years ago, a sex therapist gave the following suggestion: use the metaphor of treats. If you just feel like having a cuddle, slip a note under your partner’s pillow that says something like “cookie.” If you are looking for the whole shebang (sorry), write “Bavarian chocolate cake” or whatever your equivalent baked desire might be. Notes these days are more likely to be texts. An erotic text like, “let’s play a game tonight…” may open the door to a new experience.

The next time you are getting ready to be intimate, start small. “Do you remember when we first met? Do you remember where we were? Let’s pretend it’s that first time.” Then you can explore memories to set the scene. Some couples who are titillated by this first scene may want to move on to others.

Another possibility is playing “don’t touch me there.” Sex therapists often forbid certain sexual activities when there is a problem with orgasm in order to allow individuals and couples to explore other parts of the body with more attention. You can tell your partner that you want to play a game. They can only do X, Y or Z but not A, B or C. You could make it more exciting by begging them when you get really excited, to pl-e-e-ease touch you there (or to do A, B, or C) with the understanding that they are not supposed to give in.

There may be a sexual activity you’ve always wanted to try but you have been unable to ask for it. Again, a note or text might work, or you can do something out of character like renting a video that demonstrates it in great and graphic detail.

But some of you are shaking your head. You just want to be able to talk openly about an aspect of your sexual relationship that–you feel–needs work. Aside from overcoming the obstacle of finding the words and getting them out, you may be worried about hurting your partner’s feelings. Perhaps the next time you set out to be intimate, start with expressing appreciation. “I love it when you/we…Let’s do that some more the next time.” Or, “I remember once you did X. I fantasized about that for days. I’d love you to do that again.” Or, “you would probably enjoy Y and I would love to give you that pleasure.”

If you like your routine, fine. If you’re bored, fix it. Or at least enjoy trying.