Young love is a gift from the earth; late love is a gift from heaven. Turkish proverb
When the National Council on Aging (NCOA) released its "Healthy Sexuality and Vital Aging" study, which stated bluntly that not only were people interested in sex after 60, many were, or wanted to be, involved in intimate, loving, sexually fulfilling relationships, it raised a lot of eyebrows. Not, however, among seniors or those working with seniors on an on-going basis.
A lot of seniors-still married, widowed, divorced, separated from a significant other-had a very satisfying sex life when they were younger, and they carry that over into their senior years with them, says Sheryl Kingsberg, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at CWRU's Medical School and a clinical psychologist specializing in women's reproductive health at University Hospitals of Cleveland. "If you enjoyed opera when you were in your 40s," she explained with an analogy, "you are probably going to like it when you are in your 60s and 70s."
"Obviously," she added, "the flip side of that is also true."
Admittedly, says 71-year-old Dolores Bizzell, the director of the Lake Shore Golden Age Center in Cleveland, things do slow down a bit when you move into life's third stage. "Seniors aren't going to be as sexually active as someone who is 35," she said, "but they still have the feelings that they want to be intimate and, if they can, they are going to act on them."
While the 1999 NCOA study (funded in part by Pfizer, Inc., which manufactures the impotence drug Viagra) does cite intercourse as one of the major ways seniors are expressing their feelings of intimacy, the study also noted that for 60-plusers-who often are dealing with chronic health conditions, such as osteoarthritis, diabetes, prostate problems, heart disease, and medication-induced lack of sexual response that can make intercourse difficult and/or impossible-being intimate isn't just about "getting physical."
"It [sexual activity] is as much about companionship, physical closeness, connectedness, communication with a significant other, and emotional satisfaction as it is about meeting some self- or culturally-imposed performance standard," said psychologist Kingsberg.
The Dating Game To meet those emotional needs, a lot of seniors today are dating-"Keeping company, they'd call it," says Ms. Bizzell-rather than tying the knot. Though, added Ms. Bizzell, that's not for lack of trying on the part of the men (who number 100 for every 143 women). "They [men] are much more aggressive in terms of looking for someone to marry than women are [because] they are more lonely, and have been dependent on their wives for so much," she said.
There are two major obstacles to dating, however. One is actually meeting someone to date: For both men and women finding a place where they can meet possible dating partners can be difficult, "especially if they are isolated at home, or if there are mobility, shyness, or lack of practice issues," said Stephanie FallCreek, DSW., director of Fairhill Center for Aging.
The best places to make connections that may blossom into something meaningful, noted both Bizzell and Kingsberg, are places that cater to seniors, such as senior activity centers, retirement communities, or local cultural and educational institutions, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, Tri-C which offer lots of senior-focused programs; churches or synagogues; and volunteer organizations, such as the United Way and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) which place seniors in local organizations and institutions. All, noted Kingsberg, "are places where you are going to meet people with similar interests and backgrounds" and they are also places where up close and personal encounters of the senior kind can take place "inside a huge comfort zone."
The other major obstacle to dating, noted gerontologist Fall Creek, is the subtle and not-so-subtle roadblock that can be thrown up by adult children. "They [the adult children] may not want mom or dad to get hurt-due to loss of another partner or rejection-or they may feel that they are being disloyal to the former spouse, or they may be jealous about possible diversion of time and attention, or they may have fears about 'spending down' or diverting possible inheritances," she said, "Or there may be more than one factor causing concern."
These articles were produced by the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, a leading organization that has been assisting older adults and families since 1908 (www.benrose.org), in collaboration with Eileen Beal, a health writer specializing in issues related to aging and caregiving.