I'd like to share a revelation with you. It took me months of pondering my interview data from hundreds of long-married elders, but I finally got it. It's about sex and older people -- not something younger folks think about a lot. However, when I have given talks to 20- and 30-somethings about my book of advice from people married a half-century or more, I know there is one question in the back of their minds, even if they don't come out and say it:
How can sex possibly stay interesting for a lifetime?
I have good news for you. I'm going to allay your worst fears and help you to relax about the idea of sex in the later years of marriage. I will tell you the spoiler right now. The message from our elders is: don't waste your time worrying about sex in later life, because it's pretty good. But first, here's the revelation. Ready?
The reason you are worried about this issue is because sex between people a lot older than you always seems kind of gross. I don't know if this characteristic is bred into us through evolution, if it is the product of ageist stereotypes, or what. But if you think about it, we have a lot of trouble imagining people a lot older than we are having sex. I will now prove this fact to you.
Imagine yourself at age 8. You get out of bed and sneak downstairs to get a snack. Your 18-year-old babysitter and her boyfriend (where did he come from?) are engrossed in making out on the couch. And what did you say to yourself?
The 18-year-old babysitter goes home that evening a little earlier than expected, and her 50-year-old parents are making out on the couch. What does she say to herself?
And that weekend, the 50-year-olds watch a movie that involves two 80-year-olds making out on the couch. What does that couple say?
Yes, you guessed it: Yuck.
The problem I discovered with younger people thinking about sex in later life is that they envision themselves now, at their age, somehow with an 80-year-old. But the revelation is this: It's just fine when you have grown old together. You've learned what your partner is like (and likes), you are comfortable with one another -- and you're older, too. The beauty of staying married for a long time is that you enjoy each other and giving each other pleasure is fun. And there is absolutely nothing yucky about it.
Alfredo, age 77, captured this phenomenon succinctly. He pointed out that when you are aging together, a lot of things just seem pretty much the same:
Somehow as you get older you kind of get blind to the infirmities that affect the other party. And you always see them the way they were. You don't see aging. It's a wonderful thing. I don't know if the brain is wired for that, but that's the way it is. You just need to have a spark to begin with. And whatever it is you're doing, just keep doing it. We're in our mid-70s, and we still have a fine sexual relationship, it's wonderful. You make do with what you've got, basically.
And the elders assure you that you are likely to feel the same way.
I have some credibility on this issue, because I don't know anyone who over the past few years has talked to as many very old people about sex as I have. At first it was awkward, but after the first two or three elders eagerly embraced the topic, I was no longer embarrassed. It's something they have thought about a lot and still think about. And indeed, they have some lessons for you about it.
First, let's be clear: many elders continue to have sex, and most believe that it is important to keep up a sexual relationship. Although younger people often hold a negative image of the "sexless older years," research shows that in marriages (or long-term committed relationships), rates of sexual activity are actually quite high. Indeed, for married people whose health does not interfere with intimacy, the vast majority of people age 65 and over are sexually active.
And that's what the elders will tell you. Diane, age 74, speaks for many of the elders:
I think sex is very important because it's kind of the glue that keeps the spark alive in a marriage. The one special expression that a married couple has is through sex--sexual intercourse--through keeping your bond just very close and very tight. It's that expression that makes your spouse know that they're loved and well cared for and you put all the other things with it.
To be sure, there are elders -- just as there are people at any age -- who are sexually incompatible or for whom their sex life is contentious or unfulfilling. In some cases, physical illness leads to lack of sexual interest or ability, causing distress for one or both partners (and again, such maladies can occur at any age). But the majority of the elders in long marriages found that sexuality can remain interesting and fulfilling into the ninth and tenth decades of life. Indeed, they believe that young people are just plain mistaken when they worry about "the sexless older years."
As Rachel, age 86, told me:
If you're really physically and sexually attracted to somebody and your head is working right, then you should be able to feel that all the way until the end of your life. And what fun that is! I don't know whether young people hear that kind of thing. They think, you know, when you get to have gray hair that the sex just removes itself from your life, but that's not true. Not at all.
So for many, sexual activity doesn't stop. But there's even better news: As you grow older, the idea of "sex" expands. It grows to include -- and even to emphasize -- a much wider range of loving and romantic behaviors. Over and over, the elders used the term intimacy, which they believe goes beyond sexual intercourse itself. Many described the deep joy of emotional and physical intimacy with a partner of many years, adding that having sex itself was additional spice in the stew -- or a tasty side dish, as Gertrude, age 73, says:
How important is sex? Well when I was young, I thought it was 90 percent! But at 71, it's a very lovely side dish. And I do think it's important -- yes, I do. At our age, it's not as much the hot romance kind of thing as it is for young people. But there's a certain wonderful friendship that exists if you have the basic foundation for it; if you've made that, you've got each other. And it's quite nice! Of course this is a woman's viewpoint, but the comfort of touch: a hug, a kiss . . . those are things that mean I love you.
Or as Beverly, age 70, put it: "The great thing at our age is that sex is not about procreation; this is purely about recreation!"
I was surprised to hear many of the elders describe intimacy in old age as satisfying as (or even better than) when they were younger. They tried to convey -- sometimes with difficulty -- the sublime pleasure of physical intimacy with a partner of 50 or more years. Mason, age 77, described his feelings, based on his 40-year marriage, in a way I found deeply moving:
I think what happens is the spark changes. You know, initially there's a lot of physical attraction and that continues. But it changes over time so that the romance or whatever you want to call it becomes actually much more profound. It's less, what's the word -- frenetic maybe. For me anyway it's really wonderful just to be able to sit together reading or watching TV, and I'll just hold her hand or touch her arm or whatever. There's a kind of a quietness there that's quite deep. It's very fulfilling. You feel a peaceful intimacy that's in a way really more meaningful than the frenetic thing.
So here's the lesson to carry with you, whether you are a 25-year-old pondering marriage or a 60-year-old wondering about the future. According to the elders, the sexual side of things -- barring a troubled history or serious physical problems -- is going to be at least good enough to keep you happy, and may be much better than that. There are lots of things to worry about in life. But fretting about sexless later years isn't one of them.