Originally created 10/06/01

Sex and romance in old age



Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made - Robert Browning

Romance eluded Shirley Wiest during her youth.

Her first husband broke his neck soon after their wedding, rendering her a nurse for 35 years until he died five years ago. He was a fine, easy-going man, but sex and children weren't possible.

At 60, the widow Wiest found herself primed for a new companion, hopeful that, this time, she might discover all of love's reward.

As single women know, the odds of romance lengthen as years pass. Older men often are married or set in their ways. And they die off like love bugs on a steamy country road.

Undaunted, Shirley drafted a list of requirements: He had to be under 71, energetic and spiritual. No smoking, no facial hair, no pot belly. He could drink socially, but no boozing. And no wheelchairs, please.

"I think the second time around you should be more fussy," she says.

Such dogged selectivity defies conventional wisdom, which advocates flexibility later in life. Be accepting, the argument goes. Open your eyes to the possibilities.

But maybe there's something just as magical about deciding exactly what you want, then hunting for it with a passion because darned if Jeff Phillips didn't walk right through that skating rink door.

He was an English emigre living in Bradenton, Fla., who was depressed over his wife's death. Friends had dragged him off for a seniors' outing at Southland Roller Palace in Pinellas Park.

Shirley, who visits there frequently, had her antennae out. "Ooh, I have to find out who this man is," she thought. "We breezed by each other and said hello and introduced ourselves."

At the end of the day, she extended herself a bit further. She told him she was glad he came and hoped he'd come back.

That was it - one smiling signal of interest that kept him crossing the Skyway Bridge. This summer, they celebrated their third wedding anniversary. They swim, walk, dance, take trips and, yes, roller skate.

"My darling husband prepares breakfast daily and does so many thoughtful things like bringing me flowers often," Shirley says. "And the great sex is the frosting on the cake. Loving and being loved is the greatest gift in this life."

Researchers agree. People who infuse their lives with intimacy, sex and love live longer and stay healthier.

"It's what makes us happy and leads to healing," says Dr. Daniel Stein, a gynecologist and sex guru. "If a new drug had the same impact, virtually every doctor in the country would be recommending it to their patients, and it would be malpractice not to prescribe it."

Intimacy makes no age distinctions. Youth's torrid cravings and moony-eyed romanticisms eventually yield to the deeper complexities of maturity. But the underlying feelings remain the same: Just about everyone wants closeness and touching.

Aging bodies and cultural messages sometimes throw up roadblocks, but initiative, experience and wisdom also can open doors.

Take sex.

Physiological changes in older bodies, such as reduced blood flow to the penis and vaginal dryness, can dampen the libido, Stein says. But several physical and emotional fixes can counteract that, such as hormone replacement therapy for both men and women, muscle exercises and a generally healthful lifestyle.

"If we can stop somebody from smoking, we can increase the penile blood flow 200 percent in two weeks," says Stein, whose Foundation for Intimacy treats sexual dysfunction in people of all ages.

Often, a change of medication can solve problems.

"Anti-depressants are the most common drug prescribed for women, with strong anti-sexual effects," Stein says. "In the limited time doctors spend with patients, doctors don't ask if your sex life is satisfactory."

Older people also must counter the drip, drip, drip of cultural cues that equate sexuality with youthful, thin, wrinkle-free bodies, says Marilyn Myerson, a professor of women's studies at the University of South Florida.

"The most important sex organ is our brain," Myerson says. "How we see ourselves and our partners and the extent to which we internalize cultural messages is going to affect our ability to enjoy sexuality."

Viagra may be a simplistic approach to rejuvenating a love life, she says, but it has produced one side benefit for everybody. Television ads are starting to show older people dancing, embracing and enjoying themselves as sensual beings.

She expects that trend to continue as aging baby boomers wield market clout.

Some aspects of growing older can enhance sensuality, Myerson says. Older people need not worry about pregnancy. They often can take advantage of time and flexibility. They may become more skilled and wise about appreciating themselves and their partners.

A 1999 survey by AARP indicates that as people age, their partners look better and better.

Fifty-nine percent of men in the 45-59 age range felt strongly that their partners were physically attractive. In the 75-and-older age group, 64 percent of men felt this way. Fifty-two percent of women in their 40s and 50s felt strongly attracted to their partners, whereas 57 percent of women 75 and over felt that way.

Verle Felde, a former nurse who has buried three husbands, says intimacy improved with every marriage.

She loved her first husband, she says, but the pressures of raising a child and working their way up in the world sometimes strained their closeness. Sex was a learning experience. Her first husband died suddenly when Felde was 60.

Husband No. 2, a widower who lived in her condo complex in Clearwater, Fla, developed Alzheimer's disease after nine years and died two years later. Their relationship was comfortable, their sex life good, Velde says. But the love of her life - Husband No. 3 - didn't show up until she was 72.

Again, he was a widowed neighbor who was "beautiful in every way," she says. For nine years, they never uttered cross words and respected each other's need for occasional space, she says. If he wanted to read for hours, she didn't complain.

"We were very comfortable with each other," she says. "We enjoyed a wonderful closeness, cuddling, hand-holding, sleeping in each other's arms."

Sex with No. 3 was slower, quieter and deeper, Felde says. "It's more sensuous to take the time to enjoy loving. Intimacy is more perfect at this age."

Now at 84, she misses him terribly, she says. She's grateful for good health, an active life and friends. But if the right man happened by, she might give it another go.

A 1999 survey by the National Council on Aging reported that half of Americans older than 60 have intercourse at least once a month, although men have it more frequently than women (61 percent versus 37 percent). That's because women live longer and lose their partners and because more older men have partners under 60 who aren't counted in the survey.

The people who weren't having intercourse often missed it. Four in 10 said they'd like a better sex life, the survey showed. The single biggest impediment was lack of partners, particularly for single, heterosexual women.

By the time people reach 85, women outnumber men 5-2, a ratio that understates the imbalance because men often hook up with younger partners and are unavailable to women of their own age.

Sometimes, finances complicate relationships. Children who worry about their inheritances may discourage their parents from entangling liaisons. If a widow's income depends on her dead husband's pension, remarrying could cost her a bundle. People on low, fixed incomes sometimes worry that a new love may cost them.

"Some of those old suckers are looking for women with money," says Helen Myers, a Florida widow. "You can't be too careful."

Lionel LaBranche has lived frugally on Social Security since his wife died of cancer 10 years ago. At 77, he goes to church, walks every day, lifts weights and figures, "If I met the right person, I'd make the right woman happy."

But tight finances crimp his chances for romance, he says. He owns his home and pampers his 1992 Chevrolet Lumina, but he can't afford many dinners out for himself, much less for dates.

Most women "just don't want to go out with anyone; they just don't want to lose their benefits," LaBranche says. "Some of them are well off with big, beautiful homes, and they are happy to go out with the girls and play golf."