Sex After 60: What You Need To Know
Bedroom talk is not something Indian culture endorses openly, especially among older couples. But as experts will tell you, there’s no age limit for enjoying intimacy. Sexual and relationship therapist Dr. Sandip Deshpande breaks down the myths about sex after 60 for us.
In our mega metro cities where real estate is at a premium, it is not unusual for grandparents to sleep separately – the grandmother sharing a room with a grandchild and the grandfather sleeping in the living room. But is this only a consequence of limited space or are senior years the end of the road for intimacy? Sexual pleasure has several components and intercourse is just one end of the spectrum, while outer course is the larger portion of the spectrum, says Dr. Sandip Deshpande, Sexual & Relationship Therapist and Consultant Psychiatrist based in Bangalore. Here he debunks some of the deep-seated myths surrounding the area of sex after 60 and offers insights on how to create better relationships.
Men-o-pause is not true
So is there an upper limit when sexual life comes to a halt? No. Neither for men nor for women is there an upper age limit for enjoying intimacy. And sex does not necessarily mean intercourse. Even a man who cannot get an erection can be sexually active by non- intercourse related activity with his partner. Erections have two components –psychological and physiological. Among settled couples, the psychological component tends to taper off. Hence senior couples may need more physical stimulation by way of foreplay to get aroused. Arousal in women manifests as wetness in the vaginal area and this is related to their oestrogen levels. With menopause causing a dip in oestrogen levels, gynaecologists may prescribe oestrogen cream or supplements and/ or lubricants to compensate for lack of wetness.
Does Age Impact Intimacy?
Typically in men, orgasm tends to be short while women usually have a prolonged orgasm and, apparently, it doesn’t change much with age. However, in men, the rest stage gets longer with ageing – i.e., the time between two erections after ejaculation, and hardness, which range from minutes to hours in youth, changes to days as men age. How do these physiological changes impact intimacy in elders? Dr. Deshpande relates anecdotal examples of women who comment that they ‘don’t really care if the man is not getting an erection; why doesn’t he cuddle her like he used to before?’ Dr. Deshpande opines that typically the man is focused only on intercourse and believes that since he does not get an erection what’s the point of being physically intimate without achieving the end point.
However, this mindset in men invariably leaves their spouses feeling unwanted because they do not understand what has changed. The next thing that happens is that the relationship starts going downhill. There’s also another reason why sexual intimacy goes out of the window in senior years: Sexual gratification has two components – giving and receiving. So between a couple there are four dynamics – of the woman giving and receiving and ditto the man. When a woman initiates sex and does not get a positive response or vice versa then that partner will most likely conclude that since they have created their family, they no longer need to have sex.
A conflict situation only arises when one of the partners cannot reconcile to this idea and feel the need for sexual intimacy beyond procreation. Occasionally, couples may seek therapy for this. Clinical experience has shown that the best results in sex therapy occur when both partners agree to be counselled. But invariably, says Dr. Deshpande, “men who come in for treatment of erectile dysfunction do not bring their spouse even when I ask them to. Happily, there are a handful of cases where women have taken the initiative to walk in with their husbands for therapy.” This is an observation, not a generalisation, cautions Dr. Deshpande.
Reasons for Downhill Days
Sex does not happen in isolation; it is a part of the whole relationship between couples. In many couples, emotional issues that have been simmering throughout their married life, seem to boil over to the surface as they grow old and the relationship turns bitter. Sexual intimacy is usually the first casualty under the circumstances. In the context of sexual activity, the first stage is desire. Desire has two components to it: a) spontaneous and b) desire on partner stimulation. In a settled couple, there may be a desire mismatch. One of them may have a higher need to have sexual intimacy and the other not so. There may be several factors that cause this such as:
Medications & Health conditions: Lower testosterone levels are a natural consequence of ageing in men. In addition, certain health conditions such as mental depression, arthritis, diabetes etc., and the medications for these can affect physiologically too. For instance, diabetes among men affects blood flow to the penis thus causing erectile problems. Certain medications too may impact men more than women.
Chronic illness: Chronic illnesses such as cancer can lead to the spouse perceiving the person more as a patient and hesitate to initiate intimacy because they feel they may be forcing themselves on them. Days become weeks, weeks become months and the caregiver- patient dynamic replaces the earlier intimate-couple relationship.
Does Therapy Help?
There’s never a situation of ‘no hope’ for improving sexual intimacy at any age, insists Dr. Sandip Deshpande. “In India we are still struggling to establish the concept of sex therapy but in the West there are sex therapists for specific illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis or Cancers where the condition itself or the use of radiation therapy can affect erectile function.” Dr. Deshpande cautions that medications for sexual dysfunction must only be taken under strict medical supervision and not purchased across the counter or on the Internet as these may be spurious and may also result in fatal side effects.
Creating Sexual Wellness
First and foremost, we need to break the taboo on intimacy among our elders. We need to stop the ‘why do they need to latch their bedroom’ or ‘why do they need a bedroom at all’ mindset. Instead, senior couples need to inculcate a culture of talking about ‘what do I like, what do you like, our desires, our needs, our feelings.’ Because a good relationship and sexual intimacy go hand in hand, it is important to redefine sexual intimacy in this phase of life. In order for this to happen, couples first need to share their innermost feelings, about what makes them feel sexually fulfilled without being prejudiced by mental conditioning of do’s and don’ts handed down to them by society.
In a culture that does not encourage intimacy how easy is it to switch on the communication pipelines? “It is possible and it works,” says Dr. Deshpande with conviction. He illustrates this with the case of a couple whose relationship took a nose dive after the husband retired and became intrusive in even minor domestic matters. Soon their home turned into a battlefield with each having a separate kitchen. It was their grownup kids who sought help for them, says Dr. Deshpande. As the counselling for this couple progressed it revealed that the wife was also upset over their non-existent sex life while the husband, a diabetic, did not feel the need for it. Gradually, with therapy, they came around to the level of sharing their feelings comfortably.
Incidentally, senior couples have the advantage of being aware of each other’s limitations and quirks. Occasionally, this prompts them to take their therapy to the next level for specific suggestions to increase intimacy with the help of sexual props such as wooden dolls. For example, if one of them has arthritis they can be suggested specific sexual positions that are kind on their joints. There are no rules and no limits for sex therapy; it all depends on how far the couple wants to take their journey. “Becoming aware of feelings and needs is the key to a fulfilling sexual relationship among ageing couples,” says Dr. Deshpande. “It’s not just the sexual intimacy that gets better but the benefits of a robust sexual relationship can have an exponentially benign effect on individual well-being. This much is evident from my experience as a therapist,” comes Dr. Deshpande’s closing statement.
Dr. Sandip Deshpande is the Founder of Happy Relationships, an online platform for sexual education and therapy. You can find out more on his website www.happyrelationships.in
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