Let's talk about sex

 

Eighty-nine-year-old Doreen Wendt-Weir is well accustomed to strangers approaching her to enquire about her love life.

The author of the popular Australian tome ‘Sex in your Seventies – and even your Eighties’, the Queensland grandmother has become something of a cult hero among active seniors tired of being excluded from discussions on sexuality. The popularity of her self-published book, which saw Doreen adopt the nom de plume of Evangeline to interview over 100 active seniors as a means of destigmatising the sex lives of older people, means she is now the goto authority on the sexual appetites of Septuagenarians, Octogenarians and Nonagenarians. She also makes regular appearances across all forms of print, online and broadcast media.

A former aged care nurse, who describes herself as having lived a very respectable and conservative life – “I don’t want to come over as if I’m hot-to-trot, as they say, because I’m not” – says there are few topics around the issue of sexual unions among active seniors that she is not willing to discuss.

“I’m not a bit embarrassed, because it’s part of life. I talk about ‘quickies’, what to do with your teeth, the flab, your children’s reactions when you take a lover, physical problems and the pleasures and benefits in having a sexual partner when you are elderly.”

But while the dawn of the internet and more relaxed attitudes to sexuality are resulting in changing sexual behaviours among this age group. The issue remains largely a taboo subject.

 

Acknowledgement needed

Advocacy group Older People’s Understandings of Sexuality (OPUS) says that while there has been quite a lot of studies on active old age that challenge stereotypes, these have avoided talking about sexuality and intimacy.

“Sexuality/intimacy are often eclipsed by (and not included in) considerations of maintaining physical and emotional independence. [We need] to challenge the idea that being old means you have little value or are seen as not fully human or even capable of intimacy.”

Active seniors are often excluded from sexuality and intimacy in popular culture or they find their sexuality routinely ridiculed in so-called gifts or birthday cards, the group says.

Dr Catherine Barrett, the founder and director of The Opal Institute – a group established to promote the sexual rights of older people – says there is growing recognition that older people are sexual.

In its Senior Relationships Survey conducted in October last year, research firm CoreData found that many seniors remain sexually active and are happy with their current sex life. The survey, which interviewed Australian seniors aged over 50, found males tend to be more sexually active than females – yet are more likely to be dissatisfied with their current sex life.

The survey also showed that in an average month, more than a third (35.8 percent) of respondents estimated they have intimate relations at least once or twice a month, including 18.4 percent who have intimate relations at least once or twice a week.

To maintain a long physical attraction the relationship also has to be a mental and emotional connection and companionship is at least as important, if not more important, than romance for practically all Australian seniors, with a widely held view that seniors still need love and intimacy with a partner the same way younger people do.

Dr Barrett says older people are increasingly seeking information about their sexual wellbeing and service providers are seeking support to promote sexual wellbeing and safety. Yet while the situation is improving, Australians are still very ageist, particularly when it comes to sexuality, she says.

Part of a team that developed Australia’s first sexual health policy in 1998, Dr Barrett says the Opal Institute gets a lot of feedback from older people that the focus on their sexuality is often reductionistic. In particular, that conversations about sexuality often default to a limited focus on sex.

“I’ve also noticed this. Sex is an important part of sexuality – but not the sum total. Sexuality also includes intimacy, touch, pleasure, body image, self-esteem, sexual pleasure ... and much more.”

To help bring this issue more into the open Dr Barrett now leads workshops to educate health care professionals. In addition, she has also helped formulate policies – such as a charter of residents’ rights and responsibilities that refers specifically to sexuality – that aged care residences can adopt.

 

Finding love at any age

Doreen, who for the record states she has had four long relationships in her life the last of which ceased when she was 81, argues that just because older Australians may not enjoy talking about sex and intimacy, this doesn’t mean they don’t view themselves as sexual beings or enjoy the avalanche of feelings that come with desiring others and being desired themselves.

Doreen says she knows of two people in her social circle who are on dating sites and are activelysearching for a suitable partner and is aware of several others actively seeking romance or already involved in romantic affairs.

“Mostly we older people don’t go around talking about sex, you see. We’ve got far too many other things to talk about. But we acknowledge it and we know it goes on. There are quite a few whose love life does not cease at 70. No, it does not. People still fall in love, there’s still [a lot of] boy meets girl.”

Doreen says there are a number of issues impacting the way older Australians approach their sexuality, not all of which can be resolved by talking about them.

These range from the fact many older people find themselves overlooked and feeling invisible, to the difficulties faced when younger family members refuse to believe older people still have a desire to get close to a romantic partner.

Indeed, while her own children are now much more accepting of her “sex guru” status, at the time her book first came out almost a decade ago they were both embarrassed and ashamed and asked that she not speak about it. Her daughters also struggled to accept that she had chosen to share her bed with a man thought of as a stranger despite the fact the couple were in a defacto relationship at the time, she says.

“Once, when staying the night at my daughter’s home my man and I were not allowed to share the same bunk bed. He was put on a madeup mattress in the hall outside my room. Morning came and he crept into my bed, where my son-in law found us when he announced breakfast was ready.”

“I firmly believe that when you are aged, most of the community can hardly bear the thought of you having a love life. Only those who are involved in a sexual relationship themselves can appreciate how it is.”

While physical limitations can also prove a hurdle, complicating the issue is the fact that many struggle to find a suitable partner, she says. “The men tend to die earlier so therefore good, decent, committed, loving men are rather hard to find. For the likes of myself, WWII killed off a lot of the eligible men who were just a bit older than I so they’ve always been a bit on the scarce side.

“You have to have a committed, loving relationship first of all. That’s terribly important. We need that if one is to have a loving sex life and a satisfactory sexual union.”

But, she says, there are numerous advantages to being sexually active as you age and the benefits are there for all to see. “Sex is very good for males and females physically because it produces all that feel-good hormone oxytocin into your blood stream during the sex act. And apart from the loving feeling that you get through the sex act, you also feel desirable and might I say even young. Psychologically it’s very good as well as being good for you physically.”

She says while the benefits are obvious, for many of those aged in their 70s, 80s or 90s, feeling valued is important to establish good sexual chemistry.

“We all must have love though, at any age.”

 

Originally published in Chapter magazine.

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