Dating, Love & Intimacy: Tips from the kids
ADVICE FOR THE ADULT CHILDREN OF OLDER ADULTS
by Susan Beerman, M.S., M.S.W. and Judith Rappaport-Musson, CSA
"I watched from a distance as my ninety-three-year-old father and his girlfriend held hands. They live in an assisted living facility. He is in a wheelchair, and she uses a walker. After a while, she stood up and they walked to his room. I followed a few feet behind. She bent down and kissed him on his mouth, and without a second to spare, he patted her gently on her behind. Two days later my father was rushed to the hospital, and he died. I was so glad he had that kiss."
— Myra, Texas
The need to feel the touch of another human being begins at birth. It doesn't matter if you are eight days or ninety years old. Your parent's need for human contact and companionship is natural and healthy. Like Myra, many of you will see your parent's desire for this type of friendship and love as something special. You may even encourage him to join social groups and functions to meet people. Senior centers, church and synagogue groups, and widow and widower groups provide opportunities for seniors to meet other seniors with similar backgrounds and interests. These organizations sponsor programs, outings, lunches, and dinners to accommodate older adults in the community. Senior summer camps may provide your parent with a well-rounded experience that may include hiking and swimming as well as stimulating lecture series.
"My mother joined a summer camp last year. She's seventy-eight years old. I thought I was sending my teenage daughter to camp. We labeled Mom's clothes, picked out two new bathing suits, and helped pack her suitcases. The first postcard arrived about ten days after she left. It said something like this, 'I met a boy. Having a great time. Love, Mom, P.S. He is a retired teacher.'That says it all. What a great sense of humor."
— Emily, Illinois
Some college campuses cater to a senior population by offering courses in history, art, and music. In some states, retirement communities are built in close proximity to a college campus for just this reason. All of these groups focus on lifelong learning and bringing older adults together to socialize and develop new relationships.
"I met this woman at a lecture on eldercare. She started to talk about her father, and I started to talk about my mother. Something clicked, and we decided to introduce them to each other. We invited them to join us for lunch. By the end of the meal, they had plans for Saturday night. The woman is now my stepsister. We couldn't be happier for our parents and ourselves."
— Sarah, Virginia
Even if you recognize that developing close relationships in later years is important for your parent's health and well-being, some of you may still feel embarrassed and uncomfortable that your parents want the companionship of a partner. Because you are having problems with this issue, you may say things to her such as "Grandma's don't do that," or "How can you embarrass me like this?" You may even make her feel guilty, and she may try to justify her actions. This sometimes complicates the situation and may make both of you feel uncomfortable and unhappy.
Calmly explain to her that you would like to understand why she needs this new relationship when she has you, her grandchildren, and sisters. She may tell you that she would like you to understand and accept the fact that she loves and needs all of you, but she also wants and needs a partner. Try to accept the fact that your parent's desire for love, companionship, and security is a normal part of life, and her life is far from over. Consider how fortunate she is that she can still find joy and fulfillment at eighty or ninety years old. Think about how lucky you are to have a parent with a healthy state of mind.
Sexuality and Sex
"My parents divorced after thirty-eight years of marriage. Dad took off for someplace out West, and Mom continued to live in a small town in the East. She met a very nice man, and they began to travel together. 'Travel together' was her way of saying they were 'sleeping together.' I guess it sounded better to her. When she told me this, all I could think of was this is way too much information. I really don't want to know about my mom's sex life."
— Carol Lynn, Massachusetts
"Most older people experience some interest in sexual intimacy. Many people are sexually intimate well into their eighties and beyond. We've not all of a sudden become asexual beings; our capacity for sexual intimacy will be with us our entire lives." The thought of your healthy parent in a sexual relationship with her partner shatters the image of old folks rocking on a porch. You may even chuckle and feel uncomfortable but if your parent is enjoying a sexual relationship, "believe it or not the 'happiness payoff' of having sexual relations is greatest for the old."
Does your parent's sex life affect you? It shouldn't, but it does. Unfortunately, it may make you feel like a child again. Remember when your parents locked their bedroom door and announced that it was time to watch the Saturday night movie? Guess what? It's fifty years later, and the movie is still not over. You may feel embarrassed by this type of relationship. You may still feel like a child, no matter how old you are today, when a discussion of sex and your parent is the topic of conversation. "As we all approach later life, two of the things which brought us the greatest joy—our children and/or our careers—are no longer as prevalent in our every day. This means that our personal relationships take on an increased importance. It is a way of solidifying our relationship with our partner and taking refuge from the sometime harsh reality of the world. Sex is a way to affirm the love of life. It is an expression of the satisfaction gained from the present. It expresses the closeness of our deepest relationships and is an important measure of the quality of life."
"I couldn't believe my ears. My mother said that she and her friend were going across the country in a camper. My mother never camped a day in her life, but she was so excited. She invited me over to see the camper. My first thought was that there was only one bed. I said, 'Mom, where is Sam going to sleep?' Without hesitation, she said, 'With me silly, with me.' Silly is not the right word. I felt like a naïve fool. I looked at her and said, 'Go for it, Mom.' She's never been happier."
— Roberta, North Carolina
Can you ever get over feeling awkward or embarrassed in front of your parent or his partner? Some of you may always feel uncomfortable because you still find it hard to believe that your parent has sex, enjoys a kiss, or likes holding hands. Others may try to accept a situation that is considered natural.
If it is very difficult for you to change your attitude and you feel your behavior is hurting your relationship with your parent, try these few suggestions.
Try to talk to your parent about the situation. Explain to him that you are happy for him, but you don't necessarily need to know all the details of his sex life. In the section on safe sex in this chapter, you will learn when it is important for you to know what is going on and how to react when you have the information.
Be calm and gentle when you talk to your parent. Explain to him that not wanting this information has nothing to do with your love for him or your interest in the rest of his life.
If your parent and his wife or significant other are overtly affectionate and it makes you uncomfortable, try not to make unkind or rude remarks. Instead, try to talk to them as a couple. If you address them as a couple rather than alone, you are reducing the risk of either of them misunderstanding your intentions.
If you believe your parent wants to keep his relationship private, try to respect his wishes, and let him know that you are available if he wants to talk to you.
Sexual desire and the need for intimacy does not stop just because your mother celebrated her eighty-second birthday, or end the day your dad retired from his job. If you think about your parent as a lively, energetic person who also happens to be your parent, you may begin to accept and understand that his feelings are normal and healthy.
The plea to practice safe sex is heard and seen in the media, advertised on the sides of buses and billboards, and displayed in your children's and grandchildren's schools. The media developed many strong advertisements that clearly alert the public to the danger of AIDS.
If your healthy parent is sexually active and she has unprotected sex, meaning sexual intercourse without the use of a condom, she is also at risk for many sexually transmitted diseases. For your parent's health and your peace of mind, this list of suggestions is adapted from "Safe Sex" tips.
Encourage your parent to try to remain loyal to a partner who also wants a monogamous relationship. Advise him how important it is to carefully choose a new sex partner. Many older men are enjoying the company of multiple partners strictly because of the availability of older women.
Your parent should make every effort to limit the number of his sexual partners. One is best, but if he feels he wants more then one sexual partner, he should try to limit the number. Remind him that it is imperative that his partners limit their contacts as well. Caution your parent that he's sleeping with everyone his partners have slept with.
"Mother was always a very attractive woman. When she and my dad were divorced, she became someone I didn't know or like very much. She started dating one, two, three, four men at a time. Who am I kidding? She wasn't dating; she was having sex with one man after another. I found out about it because my girlfriends' mother lives in the same retirement development. I did confront her, and she thought it was very funny when I said, 'Mom, I understand you have a few male friends. Want to tell me their names in alphabetical order?' It wasn't funny because my mom became involved with one man too many, contracted a sexually transmitted disease, and infected other partners."
— Terry, California
Your parent may find some humor in your suggestion, but encourage him to always use a condom for all sexual encounters to protect him against many serious diseases.
If he has not had a sexual relationship in a very long time, he may want to speak to his doctor or the pharmacist about the latest forms of added protection, such as a spermicidal product.
Encourage your parent to talk to his partner(s). Talk to him about not drinking alcohol when he first meets someone new. Keeping his mind clear will help him make better and more appropriate decisions about a new person.
Encourage your parent to inform his doctor that he is sexually active. Testing for the AIDS virus and other sexually transmitted diseases is not only important for him, but for all of his sexual partners. Impel him to see his doctor immediately if he is concerned about anything.
The message is clear that age has nothing to do with risky sexual practices. What can you do if you know your parent is sexually active and he may not be practicing safe sex? Don't panic. This is a serious problem, but you can help your parent by being open, honest, and understanding. Remember, he may not want to discuss this subject with you, and he has the right to privacy and confidentiality. If he is willing to discuss this personal and intimate subject, these suggestions may help you.
Before you approach your parent, decide if you think you are the right one to talk to him about this issue. If you think you can talk to him, refer to the information provided for you in this chapter.
If you feel too embarrassed or you are concerned that your parent will not be responsive to you, contact your parent's physician or therapist about approaching your parent and discussing the health risks. If your parent has a close friend, he may be able to approach this subject with your parent.
Contact the local AIDS center for literature on AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and a possible referral to a trained counselor. First make an appointment for yourself. Learn what you can, and then try to discuss it with your parent or refer him for counseling. Try to provide your parent with current pamphlets and literature that addresses this information.
As difficult as it may be to discuss this topic with your parent, it is important to advise him or her about risky sexual behavior. Safe sex means health and peace of mind for your parent and you.
From Eldercare 911. Copyright © 2002 by Susan Beerman and Judith Rappaport-Musson. Excerpted by arrangement with Prometheus Books. $24. Available in local bookstores or call 800-421-0351 or click here.