Probably one of the last taboos in our society is talking about elder intimacy and sexuality. It's a topic rarely raised and when it is, it's usually in the context of jokes or even disgust. Just because your father is a senior doesn't mean he's suddenly become asexual. Sexual drive remains with us throughout our lives, though it evolves, refines and matures. The way someone expresses his/her sexuality after 60 years of age may be different from what it was at 30, but it's still there.
Most experts on elder sexuality agree that people are interested in sexual intimacy well into their 80s. It continues to be a way to express closeness, love, affection, respect and pleasure. It remains an important measure of the quality of life.
Sexual intimacy does not, however, always mean sexual intercourse. Many people can derive great pleasure from touching, stroking, holding, kissing and cuddling. When a person loses a partner, as your father has, he/she also loses the ability to experience the simple joy of just being held or touched.
Your father and his partner need to take things slowly. There's no need to place undue pressure on each other or feel that if they are not having intercourse, they're not having sex and their relationship is therefore inadequate. When older people start a new relationship later in life, they may feel uncomfortable with their bodies - this is especially true of women - or apprehensive about exploring their partner's. Your dad was probably very comfortable with the sexual rituals he had with his wife, but now he has to develop new ones with a new partner, and that can be awkward at first.
It's important that your dad and his partner communicate right from the start as they begin to relate in this new way. They both need to be open and honest about how they're feeling, and this includes talking openly about what feels good.
Here are a few things for your dad and his partner to think about as they explore sexual intimacy together:
For many older adults, engaging in sexual activity just before going to bed can be too stressful, as they may be tired and need to relax to get a good night's sleep. Sexual activity just before bedtime may interfere with sleep or cause anxiety. Also, medications taken in the evening may interfere with sexual performance. One of the benefits of retirement is that there are other times of the day to share intimacy - times when older people have more energy to enjoy each other’s company.
Dim the lights, put on relaxing music and avoid the "sick room," where someone has recovered from an illness. Giving each other a massage is a good way to slowly increase sexual arousal.
- Health concerns
If either partner has a health condition that has them both worried about lovemaking, they should check in with their doctor, who can answer questions about when and how to engage in sexual activity after an illness (for instance, a heart attack) or with a condition such as lung disease. If your dad experiences erectile dysfunction or if either of them feels discomfort or that something might be amiss, they should see their doctor and try to find a solution.
- Post-menopausal issues
Women may find that after menopause they experience vaginal dryness which - along with thinning of the vaginal walls - can make intercourse painful. Dryness can be helped by using over-the-counter water-based lubricants such as KY jelly. Avoid petroleum-based lubricants such as Vaseline because they can cause infections.
- Safe sex
Safe sex is important at all ages. One of the fastest growing groups contracting HIV/AIDS comprises women 50 years of age and older. Some experts suspect that older women are hesitant to ask their partner to use a male latex condom, thinking it may insult him, or else they're embarrassed to use a female condom. It's important that your father and his partner keep the lines of communication open, so that they don't take major health risks just because they're too shy to talk about protection.
Sexual intimacy is a life-affirming expression between two people that is rich, deep and fulfilling at any age. As seniors, it can be all the more rewarding.