Answers to Common Questions about Sex and Ageing

It’s later than you think

Panties and Nail Polish Series by Christine D’Onofrio

As a baby boomer myself, I’ve witnessed first-hand the many fads and fancies of the generation that has been dubbed the “seeny-boppers.” The term combines the words “senior” and “teeny-boppers” to describe this generation’s valiant attachment to youthful ways, even while undeniably middle-aged and even old. We maintain youthful interests and a youthful self-image, so it’s not surprising that, more than previous generations (and armed with Viagra and like medication), we expect to pursue our sexual lives well into our later years. As is our wont, we “seeny-boppers” approach the coming years with the optimism and self-confidence that our good fortune and great numbers have given us. Still, on the path of sexuality, there are always cobwebs of confusion to be cleared aside.

Doctor, is there such a thing as being too old to have sex?

No. But this is a very common misconception. Some activities seem naturally more appropriate to specific stages of life. (When, in surveys, people are asked to match activities to age groups, they regularly assign things like “splashing though puddles” and “blinking at snowflakes” to early youth. When asked to indicate activities appropriate for the older population, they tend to name such things as “clutching at banisters,” “fumbling with a hanky,” or “choking on clear soup.”) For most people, sexual activity seems most fitting to early adulthood.

A further reason for the idea that we can become “too old” for sex, however, relates to natural changes that occur in our physical appearance. As we grow older, we invariably grow less attractive. The changes are many and various but, in a nutshell, we quite literally “get uglier” as time goes on. The phenomenon becomes particularly striking when the ageing individual is in a state of undress. He or she begins to appear, as it were, “horrible with no clothes on.” And, of course, nudity and sexuality so frequently go hand in hand.

Thus, for many people in our society, the idea of lovemaking between people of advancing years can seem disconcerting, and some will go so far as to describe the notion of sex among the elderly as “disgusting,” “really disgusting,” or even “stomach turning”!

But I’m still in my forties and I’ve kept in shape. I think I still look pretty good.

In areas related to sexuality objectivity is hard to come by. The chances are that you “look good” not relative to the general population but only “for an old person” or, to put it another way, “as old people go.” I remember one woman – a high-powered and prominent attorney – who came to me troubled by the prospect of resuming dating at the end of her eighteen-year marriage. Daunted by the prospect of sexual activity with a new partner, she had taken an unflinching look at her unclothed body, probably for the first time in years. “Using a mirror, I inspected the rear view,” she told me, “and it looked like someone had been kicking me in the ass with pointy boots.” Armed with her own appraisal, incidentally, the patient eventually decided against this new partnership, telling me, in her characteristic frank style, “I think I’ll just lower this ass into a big chair and read a book. That way no one else is going to get a look at it.” (A year later, this patient reported she was satisfied with the decision she’d made, adding that she’d finally “got around to reading Middlemarch.”)

Well, no matter what you say, I still think I look good. (My friends tell me I look very young.) But what should I expect as I age?

I’m reminded now of another patient – a top executive in a Fortune 500 company. He came to me concerned that while, in his view, he still “looked pretty good,” his wife was beginning to resemble the award-winning news anchor Lloyd Robertson. He wanted to know if this was normal.

I assured him that it was. As we age and hormone levels rebalance, men and women begin to take on characteristics of the opposite sex. There are many famous cases: American ex-First Lady Nancy Reagan, for one. Even her standing as an icon of feminine style and glamour has not prevented her from coming in recent years to resemble the late film star Burgess Meredith. And closer to home: Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. Outfitted in a hairnet and smock, he’d fit right in with any group of middle-aged women serving up hot turkey sandwiches in a hospital cafeteria.

OK, let’s say I agree – for the purposes of argument – that my looks have degraded. But are you suggesting that my fading appearance should stand in the way of my enjoying an active sexual life?

No, indeed! And this is particularly true for those who exist within long-term, loving and committed relationships. Couples like these often sustain their sexual lives well into middle and old age, often becoming even more devoted as their options for sexual partners outside the marriage grow scarcer.

I’ve recently been prescribed Viagra. While I’m anxious to resume marital intimacy, I worry that my partner is hesitant. (I am a successful advertising executive.)

Much lighthearted fun has been poked over the years at that stock character, the new bride, alarmed on her wedding night by the ardour of her fledgling groom. How much greater her astonishment when, decades later, his potency restored after a long dormancy, that same husband comes shuffling at her across the bedroom, fumbling with his pyjama bottoms! (A useful reference work: “Oh Hell. Not This Again!”: Restoring Intimacy in The Long-Term Partnership, Government of Ontario, 2001.)

Mismatched sexual appetites are, of course, a problem in any long-standing relationship. Many couples seek a solution in open and frank discussion of their sexual incompatibility, in the hope that an unrestricted airing of their needs and feelings will resolve the issues. Such a strategy has proven to be every bit as effective in the later years as it is in the first stages of a relationship.

One more thing: what if my partner falls asleep during the act of love?

Once again, communication is essential! Speak to your partner about the possibility that one or both of you might fall asleep during sexual activity. In later years, furthermore, it’s important to discern, should your partner appear to fall asleep, whether he or she is actually sleeping. What looks like “falling asleep” can sometimes be something much more serious.

Dr. Barbara Nichol