Intimacy and Aging

“You’re looking pretty tonight.” Her eyes warm to the compliment. Automatically she checks her hair, newly washed and cut. Even after all these years she is still slightly nervous. But a date is still a date even when you are seventy-and-more. For his part, any tentative feelings are covered with pride and pleasure at being seen out with such a fine woman – much as he felt fifty years and more ago.

“Shall we go?”

Every old person has his/her own individual life story. For the old, there may well be new pleasures and sorrows to come. But these relate to the entire shape of their lives, not simply to the status of being old. This applies as much to loving and intimacy as to anything else in old age.
As people age we often think that they have become asexual. This is not necessarily the case and research has shown that physical intimacy can continue as one ages. There are, however, several reasons why intimacy may decrease among the aging. Some of these reasons may be due to the loss of a loved one either through death or divorce, a chronic disease that causes pain, and physical incapacity.

The elderly are living longer and more fulfilled lives, and with this longer life expectancy, they can continue to enjoy physical intimacy as long as a willing partner is available. People also believe that the physical part of a relationship is cut off at a certain age and that the elderly only depend on companionship to fulfill their needs for the rest of their lives.

Active young lovers; are they so dissimilar? Studies of sexual activity and interest in old people confirm that active young lovers are more likely to become active old lovers; so the question is moot.

Sexual attraction doesn’t change with age. There are different modes of attraction. The question that health practitioners might ask is “are you sexually active?” can mean different things to a twenty year old and a seventy year old, but in both cases the answer can be yes.

A man who has enjoyed physical intimacy for years is likely to continue an active love life in old age. However research does suggest a general decline in the amount of interest and activity in old age. But how important is the frequency of contact? In old age. meanings and numbers have rather little to do with each other. Each union between a long devoted couple is an affirmation that goes beyond the pleasure of the moment. Years of love imbue the occasion. Each partner keeps the sense of being desirable and the identity of an alive individual. And this survival of sensual awareness tends to make the person more vital and attractive in many ways and in interpersonal relationships.

Doctors I have worked with unfortunately don’t always share this attitude. In one study, elderly widows and widowers were asked about their sexual activity. A high number of men reported continued participation but almost no women did so. One researcher suspects the examining doctor will list no activity for women because they were too embarrassed to ask a nice old lady whether she is still active. It was the opinion of the researcher that most doctors viewed these women as looking too much like their mothers and grandmothers. Doctors too can have mixed feelings and distorted attitudes about their parents and about old people.

The researchers Trudel and Turgeon said it best: “The love we give our children today is likely to radiate back to family and society as nurtured seedlings bear fruit beyond our own harvestings.”

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