Vitality - Healthy Aging NewsletterSpring 2011

It's Never Too Late for Intimacy and Love

Love and sex are not just for the young, but for the young at heart, as any happy older couple will tell you. And having a healthy sense of humor is key.

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One 90-year-old Group Health member, who chose to remain anonymous, recalls the first kiss with her 93-year-old companion. "He grabbed me and kissed me, and said, 'Do you feel that?' It took me a minute to realize he was talking about his defibrillator."

A 74-year-old says her husband still chases her through the house. "We run around naked, screaming," she says. "It's great fun."

The desire for intimacy doesn't vanish with age, and countless studies show that many of us enjoy sex well into our later years. "If you liked sex as a young person, there's no reason why you can't enjoy it in your senior years if you remain healthy," says Chris Fordyce, MD, director for Group Health's Healthy Aging Program. "We’re never too old to stop yearning for intimate relationships."

Love Blooms at Any Age

Many older adults find companionship late in life. Bob and Dorothy Atkins, from Seattle, met after they lost their spouses of over 40 years, and married at ages 68 and 70. That was more than 15 years ago. Their secret? "We're always laughing," says Bob.

Virginia Cooper, 91, and Harry Strnard, 92, live across the hall from each other in their retirement community. He brings her coffee every morning, and they go out for lunch, dinner, to the movies, and to the Seattle Art Museum. They, too, keep each other entertained.

"I have a walker now, and he has a cane," says Cooper. "When we first met, I told him, 'Harry, we gotta get out of here! We gotta do something new!' And he said, 'Like, run?'"

Challenges of Sex in the Later Years

Running is only one challenge as we get older. Having sex as a senior may present others, such as being embarrassed by our performance, having little or no libido, experiencing discomfort or pain with sex, having difficulty reaching orgasm, or dealing with a medical condition.

Many of these physical conditions can be treated successfully. There are pills for erectile dysfunction; pills, gels, and patches to boost your sex drive; and lubrication for vaginal dryness. "Widowed women in their 80s tell me they're in love and want to have sex, but are concerned about vaginal dryness," says Dr. Fordyce. "Within months of using estrogen cream, they're enjoying comfortable sexual intercourse."

Safe sex — critical for this age group — has an added benefit for women: Condoms are lubricated.

Another hindrance to our sex lives may be our mental attitude. Loss of libido can be due to anxiety, depression, reluctance to move on after the death of a spouse, stress, guilt, lack of confidence, or poor self-image.

"We may laugh about how gravity is winning, but underneath the laughter is a very real cognizance of how our bodies look at 70, 80, and 90," says Patricia de la Fuente, 74, from Seattle. Physical changes are inevitable as we age, and learning to accept them gracefully will smooth the transition.

Plus, appearances are only part of the equation. As member Tama Murotani-Inaba reminds us, sensuality is more about self-confidence than youth. "I may be 90 years old, blind in one eye, and use a cane," she says. "But I still know a good-looking man when I see one, and I don't mind telling him."

Redefining Intimacy As We Age

The sort of pluck Murotani-Inaba exhibits is what's needed as we move forward. "If we're lucky enough to be long-lived, we'll change the ways we express our sexuality and intimacy over our lifetime," says Dr. Fordyce. "It's adapting to and exploring those changes in a positive way that's important."

Patience and an open mind may be the greatest gifts we can give our partner. De la Fuente likens sex in later life to driving a car. "We just have to drive a little slower," she says.

Not everyone will have a partner late in life, but that doesn't mean sexual urges are nonexistent. One senior says she's ashamed to admit she's lonely, and misses sex. Another says she's too shy to visit an upscale sex shop, but ordered sexual aids from a catalog.

"Masturbation plays a much larger role as we get older," says Dr. Fordyce. "Sexual stimulation is a significant part of our lives, and it's important to realize this is a human need."

As our physical and emotional needs shift and change, we may also look at intimacy in a different way. "Now that I'm in my 90s, I find it's mostly about touch," says Cooper. "You cuddle on the couch, hold hands, and kiss each other on the cheek. It's about expressing love, and being close."

Ready to Meet Someone New?

Remember that you can meet people anywhere. Cooper found her beau in her retirement community, the Atkins connected at church, and several couples met through Group Health Cooperative's SilverSneakers program.

Check to see if your community has a singles group, visit a senior center, play Bingo or bridge, or go out dancing.

One 64-year-old woman says she's ready to meet a "cuddle buddy," and is learning how to give a massage.

A long-time friend of mine has a bad back, and I think it could be a nice way to move into intimacy," she says.

It all comes back to being young at heart. Francis Smith, 64, recently wheeled his wife of 33 years around the yard in a wheelbarrow. "Well, we were actually racing, until I got too winded to continue," he says, laughing.

Perhaps Dorothy Atkins has the best advice for love in our later years — that we're only as young as we feel.

"What if you didn't know your age?" she says. "How would you feel then?"

How to Keep the Romance Alive

  • Celebrate your age, and your confidence.
  • Be intimate through tenderness and touch.
  • Hold hands when you go out for a walk.
  • Set the mood with flowers, candlelight, and a special meal.
  • Keep your sense of humor, and laugh often.
  • Boost your libido with daily exercise.
  • Do your Kegel exercises every day (See Kegel Workout, below.)
  • Go out on special dates to fan the flame.
  • Share your needs and desires with your partner.
  • Read erotic books or poetry to each other.
  • Give each other a massage.
  • Take a bubble bath together.
  • Warm up with plenty of kissing.
  • Don't be shy. Try different positions and sex aids.
  • Go slowly. Give your body time to respond.
  • Enjoy quality cuddle time.

Kegel Workout

The Kegel exercises not only are an effective way for men and women to control stress or urge incontinence naturally, they can also increase pleasure during sexual activity. Kegel exercises strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, helping control the flow of urine. Simply squeeze these muscles, which will feel like you're stopping the flow of urine. Hold about 10 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Do three or four sets of 10 contractions daily, and you should notice an improvement in 6 to 12 weeks.

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