Sex Matters for Women
THE LATER YEARS
By Sallie Foley, Sally A. Kope, and Dennis P. Sugrue
The Later Years: “They Say There’s Been a Revolution”
“What amazed me was sex in my 60s. No one told me how much I’d get turned on and how fun it would be. I’m more adventurous than I thought I’d be, trying a vibrator and getting my partner to try Viagra.”
“Sexy grandmother” is not an oxymoron. The best-kept secret is sex in one’s 60s—that’s where the real sexual revolution is embodied. It’s a time when the expectation of sexual freedom and comfort is most likely to be a reality. Sex in a woman’s 60s is free of time demands. Not only do women make time for themselves to exercise and pursue personal interests, but they also spend time masturbating and increasing their erotic focus.
Relationships also change. Characteristics of personal strength and assertiveness are valued, and sexual attraction develops from the relationship rather than appearance. This pattern is in contrast to what younger people experience, where superficial physical attraction is often the initial basis of coupling and affirmation.
And this sexual revolution isn’t confined just to women in their 60s. Used to being ignored as too old or asexual, women in their 70s and beyond have gone about taking charge of their sexuality and proving just how sensual and erotic they can be with themselves and their partners. If they’re in long-term partnerships, they find that sex and intimacy can deepen in ways that are possible only for relationships that have been tempered by time, shared trials, and honest communication.
Physical illness, disability, and stress over financial security and retirement can complicate sex during the later years, however. Widowhood also becomes a significant factor during this stage in life. But healthy or not, partnered or not, women in their later years continue to be sexual people capable of responding to sensual pleasure.
“What irritates me most in my 70s is the way that people write me off as a sexual has-been. We’ve always had a good sex life, but we didn’t talk about our sex life with anyone else. Then I had a hip replacement, and before I left the hospital the physician suggested that I avoid the missionary position so that I didn’t stress my new hip. ‘Make love on top,’ she said. At first I was embarrassed, but my partner encouraged me to ask questions. The doctor suggested that I go on the web to look at resources and to buy a vibrator. Now we’re open to new ideas from anyone! We’ve been reading erotica out loud to each other, especially on days when my hip or his bad knee is acting up. To be honest, I think you have to be at least 65 to be erotic.”
Confusing Aging with Poor Health
A common mistake is to confuse aging and poor health. Being depressed, overly anxious, or irritable isn’t part of growing old—it’s an offshoot of poor health. Disrupted sleep patterns can also be a sign of depression. Just as cartilage around joints wears away as we age, so does our neurochemical resilience; we just don’t “bounce back” as quickly as we face challenges and stressors. Depression can cause you to withdraw from sexual activities you used to enjoy.
As you age, you may experience chronic medical conditions (like diabetes), mechanical difficulties (like joint or back problems), memory difficulties (like dementia or depression), or fatigue. Remember that your healthcare provider should be part of the solution, not part of the problem, so find medical help that is consistently supportive of you. There may be medications, physical therapy, or a medical procedure that can help you. Use the suggestions for finding a healthcare provider that we give in Chapter 13. Practitioners trained in gerontology will usually be the most knowledgeable.
Accommodate, Don’t Capitulate
Sexually active women in their later years observe that issues of physical pain, mobility, and urinary incontinence are the greatest barriers to partnered sex. They find that healthcare providers may not be knowledgeable about their sexual difficulties or are uncomfortable discussing sex with women in their later years. Rather than giving up and giving in to social stereotypes that sex is reserved for the young, these women find ways to make accommodations. When engaging in intercourse, some position changes may be necessary to accommodate more fragile bones. Women report that they work on their mind–body connection, increasing their ability to fantasize, focus erotically, and tune in on those parts of their bodies that feel good. Chapters 7 and 8 may help you make the physical accommodations you need.
Urinary incontinence is to a woman in her 70s what yeast infections are to a woman in her twenties—one big hassle! To cope with wetness and odor, some women spread dark-colored absorbent towels on the bed before having sex, use lots of slippery lubricant to get wet before getting sexual (so additional wetness isn’t noticed as much), and use lightly scented candles or incense and body fragrances or perfume. Other women, not comfortable with “wet,” skip intercourse and engage in other sex play. Kegel exercises, explained in Chapter 8, may also help maintain your muscle tone.
“Let’s be honest. I didn’t feel comfortable leaking pee when Frank and I were having sex. It just wasn’t me, and I wasn’t going to change that much at the age of 86. So I wore panties with a bladder control pad during sex. First I made the mistake of trying to use menstrual pads, but they just don’t absorb urine. Frank placed the vibrator on the outside of my panties and the stimulation reached my clitoris. When I orgasmed, the urine leakage went straight onto the pad.”
As a sexual woman in your later years, ask yourself these questions:
Am I addressing my physical difficulties and willing to consider new ideas for medical care, even if these include medications, physical therapy, learning to use a walker, hearing aid, or other prosthesis?
Am I exercising regularly, including my pelvic floor muscles (Kegels)?
Would I consider an antidepressant medication to improve my mood, sleep, or memory?
Am I avoiding sex because of urinary incontinence?
Privacy in Assisted Living Facilities
Some women discover that their interest in partnered sex makes their grown children uncomfortable, and unfortunately many senior housing and care facilities often try to prevent sexual activity between residents and aren’t comfortable providing privacy for masturbation either. The lack of freedom and privacy to enjoy sex is a great loss for many residents. Continue to remind your facility managers that older adults have a right to sexual privacy. If senior years are still ahead of you, advocate for the privacy of the seniors in your life who are in assisted living facilities.
Going the Distance: Your Lifelong Sexuality
Inevitably, all relationships will end, and the majority of married women who live past 70 will be widowed. In youth the possibility of facing this loss seems obscure and unlikely. Most couples who pledge “till death do us part” in their younger years have no concept of what they are promising. Women respond to this loss in different ways. Some may seek a new partner. Other women who are widowed or divorced in older age may choose not to seek new partners but continue masturbating regularly. They report learning new ways to self-pleasure by using sexual fantasy, vibrators, and dildos. Many cope with loss by learning to refocus their attention and passion on other aspects of their life, like family and social activities.
However they cope, women of age do not appear to meet this challenge by withering and withdrawing. It may seem a paradox, but older single women do not describe their lives as lonely or empty, despite the blatant fact that the majority of them do not have a sexual partner. In fact, they describe less loneliness than at other periods in their life (Friedan, 1994).
Why do women describe less loneliness at an older age? We may be tempted to conclude that sex is not important for women at this stage. That would be erroneous. Sex, intimacy, and touch remain important, but at this stage intimacy has been established in a much broader context.
Women have always been known for their enduring ability to form and nurture meaningful relationships. Whether in the quiet companionship of women quilting together or two friends exchanging voice messages in the midst of a hectic day, women tend to weave their lives around relationships.
Women of age have developed a capacity to experience closeness in many deep and abiding forms. This frequently translates into intimacy that does not depend upon, or define itself through, genital sex or intercourse. This does not mean that what is lost or missing is not grieved, but emotionally healthy older women do not seem to waste away or pine for what they do not have. Instead, they draw upon their remarkable abilities of connection to experience intimacy in ways that transcend narrow definitions.
Do I continue to fantasize, masturbate, and enjoy touch?
Do I draw pleasure in remembering positive sexual experiences? (If memories of sex are traumatic, you may find it helpful to read Chapter 10.)
Do I continue to develop myself by being social and nurturing my friendships?
Excerpted from Sex Matters for Women: A Complete Guide to Taking Care of Your Sexual Self by Sallie Foley, Sally A. Kope, and Dennis P. Sugrue . Copyright © 2002 by Sallie Foley, Sally A. Kope, and Dennis P. Sugrue . All rights reserved. Excerpted by arrangement with The Guilford Press. $19.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.365.7006, ext. 1, or click here.