Even though I won a Walkley award back in 1980 for writing a series of articles about sex in Australia it took another 20 years before I really believed old people had sex. The experts back then had told me the facts. But it wasn’t until my dear, late father-in-law in the year 2000 fell in love that I really took it on board.
He was nearly 84. From the age of 16 he’d loved just one woman and had been a devoted husband to her. Through her 15 years of Alzheimer’s he’d cared for her with breathtaking kindness. But a year after her funeral he fell in love with a woman who handed out the bibles at his church. One Sunday, she slipped a note into the bible she handed him.
It wasn’t the quiet companionate love I expected of octogenarians. The way my father-in-law told it, and he told it wonderfully, it was like teenage love. “The touch of her hand sends me crazy,” he once told me. My husband didn’t know where to look. They discussed Viagra but she demurred. So whether the sex they had was of the penetrative kind I doubt. But I would describe the relationship as intimate, as sexual.
Nothing prepares the younger generation for their parent’s mad love affair. If the parent happens to be in their eighties and is giddy with passion, you might feel, if not exactly disgusted, then maybe jealous. I’m fully convinced now that I’m 64, and research supports me, that older people are having more sex than you might think.
But what of people who’ve long past the giddy stage and are entering their 50th year of marriage? Can sex with the same person possibly stay interesting for a lifetime? I turned to the voices of real people again. And in a book called 30 Lessons for Loving: advice from the wisest Americans on love, relationships and marriage, hundreds of long-time married people spoke about their love-life.
I particularly liked the observation of Alfredo Doyle 77. “Whatever it is you’re doing, just keep doing it,” he said. “You make do with what you’ve got basically….” But I also learnt the idea of sex expands to include a much wider range of loving and supportive behaviours than sexual intercourse. People used the word ‘intimacy’ a lot. Rebecca Gibson 81 said: “Even if you can’t complete the sexual act, cuddling and touching are very important.” Barring a troubled relationship history, or serious physical problems, the sexual side of a long-term marriage is going to be good enough, I learnt, and possibly much better than that.
Last week the Let’s Talk About Sex conference was held in Melbourne, sponsored by Alzheimer’s Australia (Victoria) and COTA Victoria. The aim was to dispel the stigma around sex and ageing and also to improve practices in nursing homes so residents can be safe from abuse but also able to give expression to their sexual selves. It’s imperative staff in aged care facilities, who are often from different cultures, some with strong religious beliefs, are trained in the lessons I’ve learnt. Just because people wear the wrinkles of experience, doesn’t’ mean they lack rich internal lives, and strong feelings about sex and intimacy. Sex is not the prerogative of the young.
Having said this let me throw in a caution. In trying to reverse the unflattering stereotypes of the asexual aged, there’s a danger we make sex in old age feel obligatory. It would be unfortunate if people are made to feel there’s something wrong with them if sexual desire has fallen away or if they lack a sexual partner.
As baby boomers grow older, we’ll grow more diverse. We know that on average people in their 60s have sex once a week if they have a partner. Beyond 69, we don’t know much in Australia because that’s the age our national sex survey cut out. From overseas, the surveys can paint a nuanced picture. The 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behaviour in the US found only 29 per cent of women aged 60-69 had had sex in the previous month. For some of its participants the sexual revolution turned into a damp squib.
Singlehood is a big factor: about 20 per cent of Australian women in their 60s live alone, rising to 30 per cent in their 70s. It doesn’t mean they don’t have sex but the chances without a partner are reduced. This is a significant minority. Some sex lives are radically changed through prostate cancer, diabetes, and the high rate of anti-depressant use. People make adjustments, and help is available. People crave intimacy. Many women discover their sex life improves when sex is not focused on the erect penis, or when couples broaden their definition of sex.
It’s important to let the world know sex is for life. It’s important for nursing homes to re-write their rules, and for doctors to talk. It’s important to change the stereotypes about sexless elders. But can we do this necessary work in a way that doesn’t make a lot of people feel bad, people who can’t get sex as they’ve grown older, or don’t want it, or find it all too difficult? Many might revel in being “sexy seniors” but some might be happy or resigned to putting that part of their life to bed.
What are your thoughts on this? I’d love to know. Please comment.
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