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Intimate Relationships Can Continue Into Old Age

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am a single woman close to 70 who is considering dating again after many years.  I wonder about what to expect now, aside from the likelihood of a partner taking Viagra?   Should I just assume that at my age, the game is over?

Answer: Let’s begin by discussing sex, intimacy and even Viagra in later life.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article (Nov. 13, 2010), “Desire in the Twilight of Life,” Mark Lacks, writes, “Despite the stereotypes and bad jokes, intimacy is alive and well in our aging population.  And it’s time to get comfortable with it.”

We live in a youth culture that focuses on beautiful bodies.  We typically think of older people as asexual and resigned to a loss of desire, vitality and relationships. But there are many historical references to intimate relationships in later life.

One of the oldest references is the Bible story of Sarah and Abraham.  Sarah at the age of 90 and Abraham age 100 are told by God that Sarah will have a son within a year.  Sarah laughed to herself.

Plato wrote in “The Republic” that growing old has one benefit: less interest in sex.  The character Cephalus, who is on “the threshold of old age”’ says, “For, in every way, old age brings great peace and freedom from such things. When the desire ceases to strain and finally relax…it is possible to be rid of very many mad masters.”

Here is an excerpt from a letter Winston Churchill, at age 83, wrote to his wife, Clementine, in 1958.  “You have all my fondest love, my earnest.  The closing days or years of life are grey and dull, but I am lucky to have you at my side.  I send you my best love and many kisses.”

Research sheds some additional light on the subject.

In 2007, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report on the largest systematic study of sexual activity and aging.  With 3,000 people participating, the study found that sexual activity did decline with age.  However, half of those between age 65 and 74 remained active, as did one-quarter between 75 and 85. In this latter group, 54 percent reported they had sexual relations two to three times a month; about one-fourth reported relations with a partner at least once a week.

The study found that poor health was not the major reason older adults were not physically intimate.  For women, in particular, it was the absence of an able or willing partner.  And when women referred to health problems, typically they were referring to their partners’, not their own.

And then there are the Viagra and Cialis advertisements.  Despite the ads for ED (erectile dysfunction), the study found that the majority of men even in the oldest age group reported having “little difficulty in that department,” according to the Wall Street Journal article.

A more significant problem with these ads is the image they project about healthy intimacy for older people.  The ads depict “a Utopian version of sex.”  The individuals are fit, attractive and seem to “segue seamlessly from doing the dishes to the bedroom.”

Such ads ignore what we know about romantic activity and older adults.  According to Lacks, many professionals who deal with these issues indicate that older adults report a high degree of satisfaction, even when the relationships involve alternative approaches to intimacy.

What to expect?  Here are a few more facts.

Among those 65 and older, women outnumber men by 5.3 million in the U.S.  Among those 65 and older, widows account for 42 percent of the population compared to 14 percent for widowers.   Data regarding those never married is scarce.  The bottom line is that there are more available older women than men.

Do not fret.  You just have to meet one person with whom you click.  The biggest challenge is to make yourself available.  The first step may be the most difficult. Consider online dating, dance classes, attending religious services and activities and attending cultural events.  Let your friends know you are available.

Is it worth it?  It seems there is nothing to lose.  At this moment, there likely is a man thinking the same as you.

Thank you for raising an important question.  And best wishes in taking that first step.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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