Older People and Sex: Prepare to Be Surprised

I’d like to share a revelation with you. It took me months of pondering my interview data from hundreds of
long-loving couplemarried elders, but I finally got it. It’s about sex and older people – not something younger folks think about a lot. However, when I have given talks to 20- and 30-somethings about my book of advice from people married a half-century or more, I know there is one question in the back of their minds, even if they don’t come out and say it:

How can sex possibly stay interesting for a lifetime?

I have good news for you. I’m going to allay your worst fears and help you to relax about the idea of sex in the later years of marriage. I will tell you the spoiler right now. The message from our elders is: don’t waste your time worrying about sex in later life, because its pretty good. But first, here’s the revelation. Ready?

The reason you are worried about this issue is because sex between people a lot older than you always seems kind of gross. I don’t know if this characteristic is bred into us through evolution, if it is the product of ageist stereotypes, or some other reason.

The problem I discovered with younger people thinking about sex in later life is that they envision themselves now, at their age, somehow with an 80-year old. But the revelation is this: Its just fine when you have grown old together. You’ve learned what your partner is like (and likes), you are comfortable with one another – and you’re older, too. The beauty of staying married for a long time is that you enjoy each other and giving each other pleasure is fun. And there is absolutely nothing yucky about it.

Alfredo, age 77, captured this phenomenon succinctly. He pointed out that when you are aging together, a lot of things just seem pretty much the same:

Somehow as you get older you kind of get blind to the infirmities that affect the other party. And you always see them the way they were. You don’t see aging. It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t know if the brain is wired for that, but that’s the way it is. You just need to have a spark to begin with. And whatever it is you’re doing, just keep doing it. We’re in our mid-70s, and we still have a fine sexual relationship, it’s wonderful. You make do with what you’ve got, basically.

And the elders assure you that you are likely to feel the same way.

I have some credibility on this issue, because I don’t know anyone who over the past few years has talked to as many very old people about sex as I have. At first it was awkward, but after the first two or three elders eagerly embraced the topic, I was no longer embarrassed. It’s something they have thought about a lot and still think about. And indeed, they have some lessons for you about it.

First, let’s be clear: many elders continue to have sex, and most believe that it is important to keep up a sexual relationship. Although younger people often hold a negative image of the “sexless older years,” research shows that in marriages (or long-term committed relationships), rates of sexual activity are actually quite high. Indeed, for married people whose health does not interfere with intimacy, the vast majority of people age 65 and over are sexually active.

And that’s what the elders will tell you. Diane, age 74, speaks for many of the elders:

I think sex is very important because it’s kind of the glue that keeps the spark alive in a marriage. The one special expression that a married couple has is through sex—sexual intercourse—through keeping your bond just very close and very tight. It’s that expression that makes your spouse know that they’re loved and well cared for and you put all the other things with it.

To be sure, there are elders – just as there are people at any age – who are sexually incompatible or for whom their sex life is contentious or unfulfilling. In some cases, physical illness leads to lack of sexual interest or ability, causing distress for one or both partners (and again, such maladies can occur at any age). But the majority of the elders in long marriages found that sexuality can remain interesting and fulfilling into the ninth and tenth decades of life. Indeed, they believe that young people are just plain mistaken when they worry about “the sexless older years.”

As Rachel, age 86, told me:

If you’re really physically and sexually attracted to somebody and your head is working right, then you should be able to feel that all the way until the end of your life. And what fun that is! I don’t know whether young people hear that kind of thing. They think, you know, when you get to have gray hair that the sex just removes itself from your life, but that’s not true. Not at all.

So for many, sexual activity doesn’t stop. But there’s even better news: As you grow older, the idea of sex expands. It grows to include – and even to emphasize – a much wider range of loving and romantic behaviors. Over and over, the elders used the term intimacy, which they believe goes beyond sexual intercourse itself. Many described the deep joy of emotional and physical intimacy with a partner of many years, adding that having sex itself was additional spice in the stew – or a tasty side dish, as Gertrude, age 73, says:

How important is sex? Well when I was young, I thought it was 90 per cent! But at 71, it’s a very lovely side dish. And I do think it’s important—yes, I do. At our age, it’s not as much the hot romance kind of thing as it is for young people. But there’s a certain wonderful friendship that exists if you have the basic foundation for it; if you’ve made that, you’ve got each other. And it’s quite nice! Of course this is a woman’s viewpoint, but the comfort of touch: a hug, a kiss . . . those are things that mean I love you.

Or as Beverly, age 69, put it: “The great thing at our age is that sex is not about procreation; this is purely about recreation!”

Given my own stereotypes, I was surprised to hear many of the elders describe intimacy in later life as satisfying as (or even better than) when they were younger. They tried to convey – sometimes with difficulty – the sublime pleasure of physical intimacy with a partner of 50 or more years. Mason, age 77, described his feelings, based on his 40-year marriage, in a way I found deeply moving:

I think what happens is the spark changes.  You know, initially there’s a lot of physical attraction and that continues. But it changes over time so that the romance or whatever you want to call it becomes actually much more profound.  It’s less, what’s the word – frenetic maybe. For me anyway it’s really wonderful just to be able to sit together reading or watching TV, and I’ll just hold her hand or touch her arm or whatever.  There’s a kind of a quietness there that’s quite deep. It’s very fulfilling.   You feel a peaceful intimacy that’s in a way really more meaningful than the frenetic thing.

So here’s the lesson to carry with you, whether you are a 25-year old pondering marriage or a 60-year old wondering about the future. According to the elders, the sexual side of things – barring a troubled history or serious physical problems – is going to be at least good enough to keep you happy, and may be much better than that. There are lots of things to worry about in life. But fretting about sexless later years isn’t one of them.

CONTEST! Win a Free Autographed Copy of “30 Lessons for Loving”

We’re so grateful to the tremendous feedback we’ve received about 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest 30LL-book-cover-t53bi3Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage that we want to give something back! So we’re holding a contest where you can win an autographed copy of the book delivered to your front door. All you have to do is share your lessons for loving. Or you tell us about the lessons you’ve learned from a wise elder in your life about love, relationships, and marriage.

To enter, here’s what you need to do:

1. Go to www.marriagelegacy.org.

2. Scroll down the page to the Share Your Lessons for Loving section.

3. Enter your lessons in the box provided, as well as the other information requested. Give us one lesson or many; it’s up to you.

4. Be sure to include your email address, so we can contact you if you are a winner.

5. Please note: The contest closes at midnight, Friday, March 20!

We’ll select the two best entries. These two winners will be mailed an autographed copy of 30 Lessons for Loving. And we will post other responses on our blog.

So let’s hear from you!

Join Me January 20 on 30 Lessons Radio Tour!

I’m spending January 20th on radio interviews around the country, talking about 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Radio tourWisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. Hope you can join me! Here’s the schedule – and if you miss it live, ceheck the station for the recording. And your comments are always welcome!

Karl’s January 20 Radio Tour

Time

Location

Show

8:35-8:40 Cleveland, OH “Wake Up   Lake County” – WINT-AM
8:40-8:50 Atlanta, GA “Morning   Show with Bill & Joel”- WDUN-FM
9:05-9:20 Albuquerque, NM “Morning   Show” – KDAZ-AM
9:20-9:30 Minneapolis/St.   Paul, MN “The Morning   Blend” – KTOE-FM/AM
9:30-9:40 Baltimore, MD “The Laurie   DeYoung Morning Show” – WPOC-FM
9:45-9:55 Cedar Rapids, IA “Dean &   Don” – KMA-FM/AM
10:45-11:00 Burlington, VT “Mark   Johnson Show” – WDEV-FM
11:10-11:25 Regional “Roundtable”   – WAMC-FM/AM (NPR affiliate)
12:58-1:15 Atlanta, GA “CONNversations with Conn Jackson” – WAEC-AM

 

New Interview on the Legacy Project and Book!

I had a great time talking with Terry Jaymes yesterday on his show “Terry Jaymes Alive.” Terry has been a great supporter of the Legacy Project and has helped spread the work on the importance of elder wisdom. In the interview, we talk about key lessons learned from older people (including how they learn to “kick out the jerks” from their social lives as they age). Take a listen here – and we TerryJaymeslook forward to your comments!

 

Elder Wisdom, Elder Justice, and Elder Abuse

As readers of this blog know, much of what we do in the Legacy Project focuses on the positive aspects of aging and the potential for growth and development in later life.

It’s also true, however, that there can be a more negative side to aging, and one of the more serious problems an older person can experience is elder abuse and neglect. Over the past two years, the Legacy Project has partnered with the New Yorkelder justice City Elder Abuse Center on a project that trains interns in both the topics of elder abuse and in elder wisdom (you can check out past posts from the interns elsewhere on this blog).

So I was thrilled when the Elder Abuse Center invited me to do a podcast, based on my years of work in both the fields of positive aging and of elder abuse. The podcast looks at the problem of ageism in our society, and how ageism holds back attempts to create elder justice. I also got the chance to speculate about how the Legacy Project might be used in preventing ageism.

Click here to visit iTunes & download the Ageism & Elder Justice Podcast.

Pearls of Elder Wisdom to Help You Get Through the Day

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past six years interviewing the oldest Americans about their lessons for living — advice they pearlswould like to pass on to future generations. As described in the book 30 Lessons for Livingthe elders have outstanding advice on the “big picture” issues: love and marriage, child-rearing, choosing a career, health and of course, aging well.

Sometimes, however, I have had an epiphany from hearing a brief thought or phrase from the elders. When confronted with a work problem, a stressful event, or just the usual tension that can build up during the day, I find that the voice of one or another of the elders will come to me and help me re-think the situation. I’ve come to call these my “elder mantras.”

Here are a few of these “mantras” that I find particularly helpful, all from wise people in their 80s and beyond. They reflect some of the core elements of elder wisdom.

Swimming in the sea of life

Paul, 85, had a successful and high-powered career as an architect. After both a hectic career and personal life, he has found old age to be a time of both clarity and serenity. When asked: “What have you learned during your life that you would like to pass on to a younger person,” he said:

“I’ve learned how to swim. ”

That was a surprise, and when questioned, Paul went on:

I’ve learned how to swim. In life. I’m not a particularly good swimmer in water, but I’m a reasonable swimmer in the flow of living.

This image of learning to swim in the river of life, of going with the flow of living, is a powerful and serene image when called up during a busy day.

Let it be

This mantra comes from Sister Clare Moran, whom I interviewed shortly before her 100th birthday. (I can’t give all the details here, but believe me when I say: If you want to hear about an interesting life, sit down for a while with a 100-year old nun!)

Reflecting on her nearly 80 years in the religious life, Sister Clare pointed to doing away with worry as her lesson for younger people. Early in her career as a nun, she learned a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance:

There was a priest that said mass for us, a youngish priest, very fragile and frail. Beautiful, beautiful man. He said that at a certain time of his life, something happened; he didn’t tell us what it was. I heard that he had been working on a mission and they asked him to come back to the States and it broke his heart. It must have been a very hard thing to do. And he was very angry, he just couldn’t be resigned, just couldn’t. He got back into work here, but he couldn’t get his mind off it. Just couldn’t see why it had happened.So he went to an elderly priest and he talked to him about it. He said, “What shall I do? I can’t get rid of it.” And the priest said, “Every time it comes to your mind, say this.” And the priest said very slowly, “Just let it be, let it be.” And this young man was saying it just the way the priest said it and he said, “I tried that and at first it didn’t make any difference, but I kept on. After a while, when I pushed it aside, let it be, it went away. Maybe not entirely, but it was the answer.”

Sr. Clare, one of the most serene people I have ever met, has used this technique for well over three-quarters of a century.

So many things come to your mind, now for instance somebody might hurt your feelings, you’re going to get back at him or her, well — just let it be. Push it away. So I started doing that, I found it the most wonderful thing because everybody has uncharitable thoughts, you can’t help it. Some people get on your nerves and that will be there until you die. But when they start and I find myself thinking, “Well now she shouldn’t do that, I should tell her that…” Let it be. Often, before I say anything, I think, “If I did that, then what?” And let it be. Oh, so many times I felt grateful that I did nothing. That lesson has helped me an awful lot.

A feather from an angel’s wing

Flora, 80, is a poet who writes about her love of the landscapes of the Southwest. Her approach to living is to embrace the pleasures each day can hold, and she reinforces that attitude with a daily habit. One phrase stands out as a mantra.

If I were to give any particular word of advice I would say: Go about the business of the day, hum-drum as it might be, but walk on your tip-toes waiting for the “ah-ha!” experiences. That happens when you’re going around the corner doing the normal everyday things. So be prepared for those ah-ha experiences that may happen any time. That way, you’re always open to and watching for something different — watching for a feather from an angel wing.

It’s sorry you didn’t do…

One last mantra I carry with me is from Eleanor, who says about regrets: “Mostly it’s sorry you didn’t do than sorry you did!”

You can meet her (on video) as well as other elders sharing their wisdom.

Beautiful Marriage Advice from a Wise Elder

Corrine, age 72, has been married for 46 years. Marriage has not always been easy for her, and in one difficult period she even considered leaving her husband. But her marriage was saved by one revelation: that no one else can make you happy. She went on a quest to become a happier person and that transformed her relationship. I found her advice to be beautiful and inspiring:

I think it’s a mistake to think that a person that you marry is going to make you happy.

When you’re thinking of marrying somebody, they’re going to be very exciting, very interesting, very engaging. But another person can’t make you happy. You’re either happy within yourself or you’re not. So often people have real serious marital issues because they’re unhappy and so they blame – you always blame the one you love. You think that somehow your unhappiness is caused by your spouse when you’re really not happy.

It’s that you have a discontentment with life for any number of reasons at the time. So I think  you should not look or think, “Oh, I’ll be SO happy.” Like with the Cinderella story—happily ever after. I think that’s too romantic an idea.

The thing that made a real change in my life and consequently made my marriage happier was when I had a huge midlife crisis and was actually very depressed for a period of time. I went into therapy for it. That was caused by my childhood catching up to me. You know, this is what happens to you when you get into middle age. Everything that you’ve suppressed for a long time, you think is not a bother for you. “Oh, I’m beyond that!” The chickens all come home to roost at some point. And I changed my life and my husband came along—he stuck by me. We’re much happier now because I’m a happier person and I’m so grateful to him because he didn’t give up on me.

So  you would be better off wondering: Is this the guy who I want to go through my life with? My companion in life? Rather than the guy who’s going to answer my dreams and make me happy.

If you’re considering marrying a person, you should ask: Does he bring out the best in you or the worst in you? Does he somehow inspire you to be a better person?

You know, it took me ten years before I was sure that I had married the right person. I wasn’t sure that I would be happy with him because I wasn’t sure I could be happy. But I thought he would always be interesting and he certainly brought out the best in me.