If Not Now, When Do We Live Fully?

“Putting your own life/needs/emotions on hold can’t be healthy for you,” I told someone yesterday, and it reminds me of how often I find myself saying that.

A reader writes that she has a sexless and even touchless marriage, but can’t support herself financially so she’s staying. A male friend of mine in his sixties can’t decide whether his current relationship is right for him, so he doesn’t decide, he just goes along. A reader in his fifties will start exploring relationships after he moves. A woman says she will feel sexier after she loses weight. A couple hasn’t had sex for years but won’t see a therapist because they think they should figure it out on their own.

I often ask people of our age who have put their own happiness and passions on hold, “If not now, when?”

If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that I lost my beloved husband, Robert Rice, to cancer last August. He was an artist, a dancer, a thinker, and a teacher to all who knew him. As long as he could stand upright, he painted in his studio every day, creating amazing art, yet always striving for that elusive best painting — maybe his next. He painted some of his most magnificent work in his last two years.

“Do you feel like you’re living on borrowed time,” I asked Robert one morning as he pulled on his paint-splattered jeans and sweater.

“I AM living on borrowed time,” he told me. Then he kissed me and rushed off to tend his garden for a couple of hours before heading to the studio.

I’m making myself cry writing this, but I admired him (and admire him still) for always going towards his goals, his love for life and creativity, and his passion for love itself, even when he knew he was dying.

We all have a death sentence, we just don’t know when it is. As we age, though, we get many reminders of our mortality, some subtle (aches in new places, parts that don’t work 100% like they used to), some not subtle at all (a cancer diagnosis, a spinal or hip fracture, parts that don’t work at all).

It seems to me that we have a responsibility to ourselves and to life itself to live fully, productively, and lovingly — as long as we can.

As I reread this post, I realize that it’s a lesson I have to relearn in my own life now as I emerge from the dark place of grief and make my way back to life, work, sunshine, and joy.

Thank you, Robert, for the lessons you taught me so well.

A Love Letter to Aging Bodies and Faces

Do you think aging has made you less attractive? Do you have difficulty seeing yourself or your partner as sexy and desirable?

Then it’s time to challenge your own as well as society’s perception that only young bodies and unlined faces are sexy and beautiful. We need to accept – no, celebrate! – our wrinkles and rejoice in all the pleasure these bodies can still give us.

Let’s join together and practice rejecting society’s youth-oriented view of beauty, keeping ourselves fit so that we feel happy with our bodies, and keeping a loud, buoyant sense of humor!

I love my 71-year-old husband Robert’s face and body. I look into his vibrant blue eyes and I see the young man as well as the older man. The older man is no less sexy than the younger man must have been (I didn’t know him then). In fact, he’s more sexy, because he has learned how to live joyfully and love completely in ways that a young man can’t know until he has lived a full life.

I look in the mirror, where new wrinkles seem to appear weekly. I try to walk my own talk, accepting my own face as I accept Robert’s, telling myself these wrinkles are badges of living, laughing, and loving. I tell myself, this is the youngest I’ll ever be from now on!

I asked my 103-year-old great aunt what it felt like to be more than a hundred. She said, “I’m the same person I always was.”

So are we. Rather than trying to deny our aging — which is futile anyway — let’s celebrate it.

(Photos by Mitch Rice, Robert’s son, on Robert’s 71st birthday)

New England Journal of Medicine: Seniors having sex despite “bothersome problems”

When the news splashed all over the media today that older adults are, indeed, having sex, my first reaction was to laugh and say, “Duhhh!” The idea that senior sex is alive seemed to me as much a news story as the revelation that most people find feet at the end of their legs!

But there was much more to the story. “A Study of Sexuality and Health among Older Adults in the United States,” published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, was a major study of 3005 U.S. adults (1550 women and 1455 men) 57 to 85 years of age which revealed some fascinating facts and a few surprises:

The majority of older adults are sexually active and regard sexuality as an important part of life. The prevalence of sexual activity declines with age, yet a substantial number of men and women engage in vaginal intercourse, oral sex, and masturbation even in the eighth and ninth decades of life.The frequency of sexual activity reported by sexually active older adults (age 57+) is similar to the frequency reported among adults 18 to 59 years of age.The study reported that 78% of men 75 to 85 years of age, as compared with 40% of women in this age group, had a spousal or intimate relationship. Since women live longer, and on average, older men marry younger women, this disparity can be accounted for by the lack of available men for the older single women. The sexually active people in the oldest age group interviewed — 75 to 85 years of age — reported having sex at least two to three times per month, and 23% reported having sex once a week or more.About half of the sexually active men and women reported at least one “bothersome sexual problem,” and almost one third reported having multiple problems. The women’s most prevalent sexual problems were low desire, difficulty with vaginal lubrication, inability to climax, finding sex not pleasurable , and pain, usually during entry. The most prevalent sexual problems for men were erectile difficulty (14% of all men interviewed reported using medication or supplements to improve sexual function), lack of interest in sex, climaxing too quickly, anxiety about performance, and inability to climax. About one quarter of sexually active older adults with a sexual problem reported avoiding sex as a consequence.

Most surprising, given the extent of these problems that prevented sex from being satisfying or pleasurable, was this fact:

Only 38% of men and 22% of women reported having discussed sex with a physician since the age of 50.

The study suggests that the reasons for poor communication include the unwillingness of both patients and physicians to talk about sex and the gender and age differences between patients and their physicians.

Negative societal attitudes about women’s sexuality and sexuality at older ages may also inhibit such discussions.

When I give workshops and talks, both women and men frequently bring up physical problems that affect their sexuality and want me to provide a solution. I always say, “Please get a diagnosis from your doctor.” I emphasize that the problem may be caused by retreating hormones, or by an underlying health condition that you don’t know you have, or a medication, or interactions of medications. You can’t treat a problem until you know what’s causing it.

As the NEJM article states,

Sexual problems may be a warning sign or consequence of a serious underlying illness such as diabetes, an infection, urogenital tract conditions, or cancer. Undiagnosed or untreated sexual problems, or both, can lead to or occur with depression or social withdrawal. Patients may discontinue needed medications because of side effects that affect their sex lives, and medications to treat sexual problems can also have negative health effects, yet physician–patient communication about sexuality is poor.

I invite your comments!

What is Sexual Desire? How does it change with age?

“What is sexual desire, and how do you know you’re feeling it?”

Natalie Angier explored that question in “Birds Do It. Bees Do It. People Seek the Keys to It,” published in the New York Times on April 10, 2007. This exploration of sexual desire concluded that although sexual desire is universal, what turns us on (and how we know we’re turned on) is as “quirky and personalized as the very chromosomal combinations that sexual reproduction will yield.”

The article says,

For researchers in the field of human sexuality, the wide variance in how people characterize sexual desire and describe its most salient features is a source of challenge and opportunity, pleasure and pain. “We throw around the term ‘sexual desire’ as though we’re all sure we’re talking about the same thing,” said Lisa M. Diamond, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah. “But it’s clear from the research that people have very different operational definitions about what desire is.”

I suggest that not only are our reactions varied and individual, but they vary even more as we age. Certainly I would have answered the opening question differently thirty years ago. I would have said, “Sexual desire is a driving urge of attraction. I feel tingling in my genitals, and a feeling of physiological hollowness yearning to be filled. I fantasize touching my lust object, kissing him, discovering what he looks like, smells like, what noises he makes, how he makes love.”

Today, at age 63, I’d answer differently: “Sexual desire is a yearning for intimacy, for touch, for bonding with my beloved man.I fantasize arousing him, connecting with him, becoming joined in intimacy and ecstacy. It is both physical and emotional, though without the electric arousal I used to feel — that takes much more warm-up.”

What about you? how would you define and describe sexual desire now, compared to when you were younger?

If you’d like to answer Richard A. Lippa’s survey on sexual desire, which is mentioned in the NYT article, click here.