Elderly couples continue to experience intimacy, and say you don't have to be young to do everything, for gosh sakes

Wednesday, October 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Leslie Garcia / The Dallas Morning News

When Philip was a newlywed, he often drew his wife nude.

"I was enamored of that body," he says.

Almost 40 years later, he still is. Philip and his wife, Sarah, (who asked that their real names not be used) are nearing 70. They talk freely with each other about sex. And while some aspects of their lovemaking have changed, they still enjoy a healthy sex life.

"Intercourse is something that should last as long as you can manage it, and most people can always manage it," Philip says. "I don't have a lot of patience with celibacy."

Depending on your age, you're either blushing or picking your chin up off the floor. But, hey, generations ahead of you have as much right to sex as anyone. And yes, much as you might not want to think about it, your own mom and dad probably had sex more than just the one time that resulted in you. They're probably still having sex. And (splash cold water on your face for this one) there's a good chance they enjoy it ­ perhaps more than ever.

"Many seniors feel it's important," says Kevan Namazi, an associate university professor who has researched the topic. "Many still want and seek orgasms in sexual experiences when they're in their 70s and 80s."

Various studies by the National Council on Aging and the AARP back him up.

In addition, several books have been published about sex and seniors, including a novel, Julie and Romeo, by a sixtysomething Tennessee nurse.

Patrice Blanchard, of AARP, regularly gives talks on sexuality.

Studies on senior sex
In recent research projects, the AARP and the National Council on the Aging have learned the following about senior citizens and sex:
• From The AARP/Modern Maturity Sexuality Study of 1,384 men and women older than 45:

About 30percent of men and 24percent of women ages 60 to 74 reported having sex at least once a week. About half of 45- to 59-year-olds did.

More than 70percent of the men and women surveyed who have regular partners engage in sexual intercourse at least once or twice a month.

About two-thirds of the 1,384 men and women polled were very or extremely satisfied with their physical relationships.

Three-tenths of men and about half as many women indicated that better health would increase their satisfaction with their sex lives.

More than half of men older than 75 admitted to being moderately or completely impotent.

• From the National Council on the Aging's "Healthy Sexuality and Vital Aging" survey of more than 1,292 adults older 60:

Among those with partners, 80percent reported being sexually active.

Of all participants surveyed (both with and without partners), 39percent reported being satisfied with the frequency of sex. Another 39percent said they wanted sex more often.

Almost half (47percent) of respondents disagreed with this statement: "As you get older, it is as natural to have less interest in sex as it is to get wrinkles and gray hair." Thirty-one percent agreed; 16percent were unsure.

Leslie Garcia

The American Health Care Association in Washington, D.C., is publishing a curriculum to help long-term health care facilities develop policies about sexual activity. A new AARP magazine, set for spring publication and geared toward the 50- to 60-year-old set, will feature a regular department on sexuality and aging.

"We [as a society] think you have to be young to do everything, which certainly isn't true," says Marion Dunn, director of the Center for Human Sexuality at the Brooklyn campus of State University of New York (SUNY).

She remembers her mother and aunts talking about how women would lose desire at menopause. Society doesn't think that any more, she says.

"Back then, there were no models, no movie stars, no celebrities who married late and had energy in their romantic relationships," she says. "... Americans now are living longer and are in better health. Sex as a continued quality of life issue becomes very important. It's a way adults express intimacy and play and affection."

That's true for Philip and Sarah.

"One of the things so important about sex is the intimacy it allows with another person's body," Philip says. "It's absolutely essential to bonding. The idea of giving up all that sex allows is flying in the face of God and nature."

At the Baylor Senior Health Clinic in Hillside Village, geriatric nurse practitioner Joyce Harter regularly asks patients about their sex lives. She's pretty blunt, she says, inquiring whether they're having itching, burning, pain during lovemaking.

"I had a lady in her 90s tell me she was having problems, and the problem was she didn't have a man," Ms. Harter recalls. "I've [counseled] men in their 80s and sex is still part of their lives. It adds quality to their lives."

"If they can do it, go for it," Ms. Harter says. "I think it's great. I don't want to know about it with my folks, but more power to them. It keeps them young."

Case in point: Muriel (who also asked her real name not be used), age 69, and her 89-year-old companion. They've dated for about four years and enjoy a frequent and satisfying sex life.

"My kids call him their idol because all he wants is sex," she says. "Of all the men I've ever had anything to do with, he is probably the most sensual, the most concerned about satisfying me.

"It surprised me he was still capable. ... This man has never taken Viagra. He has had prostate cancer and radiation, and it still does not bother him."

Though her companion doesn't need Viagra, many men, including spokesperson and former presidential candidate Bob Dole, do. The little blue pill has been instrumental in putting the subject of senior sex a bit more out in the open, says Ms. Blanchard of AARP.

"With the introduction of Viagra ads, people are more open about sex still being important to them," she says.

Echoes Dr. Dunn of the Center for Human Sexuality: "There are so many treatments for men and will probably be soon for women. There's more hope, which also keeps people going."

Dr. Namazi sees subliminal messages in advertisements for Viagra and similar drugs.

"Previously, when you looked on TV, all they talked about was that Grandma was constipated or wearing diapers," he says. But, "There is romance, there is love involved [in aging]. These commercials don't convey that, but commercials about Viagra are very positive ... they say the elderly are sexually active and they enjoy it, so that's why manufacturers are putting money into this medication."

Medication or not, one major sexual problem seniors face is lack of sexual partners, Dr. Namazi says. At age 80 and older, the number of elderly women is four times that of elderly men. About 75percent of all married women will be widowed at some point during their lives.

Other problems occur as people age and their bodies change. Women go through menopause and experience more vaginal dryness. Men sometimes have trouble maintaining an erection. Aches and pains can make intercourse painful.

"Age can affect emotional responses," Philip says. "Depression, stress – they all diminish sexual drive. Plus the pressure of time, awareness of mortality. Another turnoff is bitterness. Whoever is unable to come to grips with what fate has dealt them will kill sex. So will anger, either constant or unexpressed."

His wife sometimes needs vaginal lubricants, he says. He has undergone joint-replacement surgery and sometimes is in pain. He was having frequent urination because of an enlarged prostate; taking saw palmetto has helped.

In his book, Sex Over 50, (Prentice-Hall; $14) Joel D. Block, Ph.D., writes that illnesses – diabetes, heart problems, a stroke, cancer – and side effects of medications can interfere with a couple's sexual activity. Interestingly and optimistically, such information comprises but one chapter in the otherwise informative and titillating book.

To lessen the effects, Dr. Block offers such suggestions as researching the problem, seeking help with a sex therapist, expecting a full range of emotions, masturbating, realizing that sex is more than intercourse.

When Ms. Blanchard of AARP talks to an audience, she first asks them to put their watches on the opposite hand from the usual one. Ten minutes later, she asks how it feels. Odd, they tell her.

"The idea is that a change can feel odd at first," she responds. "We have to work at making changes that can increase our satisfaction. You may need to develop more time to be comfortable with it."

If arthritis causes sex one way to be uncomfortable, for example, partners should try another position. She also tells them that seemingly innocuous activities can impair the sexual act. For instance, a woman taking an antihistamine might be experiencing more vaginal dryness than usual.

"There's nothing in that pill that says, 'Dry up my nose and eyes but not anything else,'" she says. "Or if you're taking a pain reliever, which decreases sensitivity, it can affect the ability to have an orgasm."

Philip acknowledges that what someone defines as sex may change with age. "Arousal does not culminate in ways it did when we were young ... What the young seek in sex is purely physical, especially if they're not reared to know that sex is a spiritual and emotional act, too."

For him, a self-described Type-A personality, finding the time to relax and be sexual is difficult. "When you're young, you get sexual in spite of being driven," he says. "But when you get older, you need to make time."

Often, however, time is what older people have that they didn't when they were young. And that's one reason sex can get better with age. Dr. Namazi cites others: Improved techniques that make people better lovers; a greater appreciation for sex; no worry about children interrupting; no fear of pregnancy.

However, older adults aren't immune from AIDS. Between 11 and 15 percent of new cases in the United States occur in people older than 50, according to the National Association of HIV Over 50.

"I wasn't real crazy about sex when I was younger," Muriel says. "I like it better now. You don't have as many pressures. You're completely relaxed ... you are pleasing each other but without effort. It comes automatically. It does make you feel better. It gets your blood rushing."