Meet our expert - Julie Peasgood
Sex isn’t just about the act itself – kissing, cuddling, and sensual caressing are all valid forms of lovemaking. The key is to be aware of any age-related changes that may affect you, and make adjustments accordingly. Don’t accept the myth that sexuality is inappropriate or embarrassing in an older person (whatever your children may tell you!)
As one of my favourite writers, Dr Ruth K. Westheimer, now 81, points out. “If you buy into the assumption you should be sexless, then that’s going to diminish your sexuality. We’re all sexual beings and we should admit it. Sex can bring great benefits, and you deserve them no matter what your age.”
Many women in their 50s gain a new lease of lust. Their children have left home, so there’s more privacy. With experience, they may feel more confident sexually and less inhibited. The risk of an unwanted pregnancy is lower and, for some lucky women, orgasms become stronger and more frequent. But what if the opposite is true for you? You may have new responsibilities caring for an elderly parent, or relationship difficulties; you may feel tired or menopausal, with low libido. Any of these can have an adverse effect on your sexuality.
If less frequent sex isn’t a problem in your relationship, then fine – but it’s crucial to talk to each other if it is. Consider whether any tension or emotional conflicts could be dampening your desire. Be truthful and open about your needs – and brave enough to ask your partner about theirs. Have a leisurely chat (away from the bedroom) and try not to judge or blame. “I” statements such as “I love it when you…” are better than “You never… any more”.
And if you can’t work things out between you, don’t be afraid to seek professional help from a sex or relationships counsellor.
Understanding the physical changes you’re both experiencing will make you less anxious about them. Arousal time may be slower, so don’t rush foreplay; take turns massaging each other and experiment with oral sex, different locations, sex toys or lingerie. Banish bedroom boredom by surprising each other – study books for ideas to vary your lovemaking techniques.
Extended foreplay will improve your libido and encourage your natural lubrication; one of the commonest symptoms of menopause is vaginal dryness caused by lack of oestrogen. Combat this by using a water-based lubricant such as K-Y or the award-winning organic ‘Yes’ range (08456 448813). Sometimes a testosterone patch is prescribed to improve sex drive in post-menopausal women (and no, you won’t grow a beard).
With retirement looming, various adjustments need making as we adapt to spending more time together – now with possible money and pension worries clouding the future. A satisfying sex life keeps us connected, but frustrating physical issues can begin to compromise our sexuality. Body parts sometimes refuse to co-operate, joints seize up and blood pressure can rise.
Medication for high blood pressure, along with antidepressants, antihistamines, tranquilisers and some heart pills, can contribute to loss of libido, vaginal dryness and erectile dysfunction. It’s worth checking with your doctor for possible alternative medications without these side effects. Interestingly, some important health benefits of sex are lowering of blood pressure, reduced stress levels and even prolonged life – in fact sex is now being hailed as the secret formula for successful ageing!
Again, discussing your fears and feelings with your partner can bring you closer – and avoid misunderstandings. Difficulty in achieving or maintaining an erection may be misinterpreted as lack of desire, when in reality nearly 60 per cent of men aged 60+ report occasional erection problems. It’s a blow to the male ego, as well as frustrating, but you can help your partner by physically stimulating him. And mention any erection difficulties to your GP, as they can sometimes be an early warning sign of health issues like diabetes or prostate problems.
Intercourse may now be more painful because of less elasticity in the vagina, but bear in mind the less sex you’re having, the more painful it becomes. Your GP may recommend oestrogen pessaries, but regular sex is also a solution.
Give yourself permission to enjoy self-stimulation too – with a discreet vibrator if that appeals. The www.lovehoney.co.uk catalogue (0800 915 6635) has a comprehensive selection. And indulge in some erotic fantasies to stimulate your brain (the body’s biggest erogenous zone). Nancy Friday’s book My Secret Garden is good inspiration.
A recent study conducted at Sheffield University shows that ‘Joan Collins Syndrome’ (the common phenomenon of women remaining sexually active in their later years) is alive and well. Between 50 and 80 per cent of healthy couples over 70 report regular sexual activity, with half enjoying weekly intercourse. The secret is an open mind, a willing spirit and a flexible attitude.
And speaking of flexibility, try experimenting with different positions if some are painful or uncomfortable. If you suffer from arthritis, face-to-face on your sides may be a comfy one – with pillows under your legs or hips for support. If your partner has heart problems, it may be easier for him with you kneeling forward on your hands and knees, leaving him free to enter from behind (so he doesn’t have to support any weight – yours or his). A hot bath before making love will help to relax joints.
Single women (through choice, widowhood or divorce) hugely outnumber men at this age. If you’re looking for a prospective partner, you may feel inhibited about your body, but rest assured they are likely to be equally apprehensive.
Whatever your age or state of health, with patience, understanding and a little imagination, you can sustain your sexuality for as long as you desire.
For further help Call Relate on 0300 100 1234; the British Association for Sexual and Relationship Therapy, call 020 8543 2707; The Sexual Dysfunction Association confidential helpline is 0870 7743571.
Useful books include: Sex Over 50 by Joel D. Block, Phd, (Reward Books); Dr Ruth’s Sex After 50 by Dr Ruth K. Westheimer (Quill Driver books); The Sex-Starved Marriage by Michelle Weiner Davis (Simon and Schuster).