Rekindling the fire: Dispel sex myths

The things that stop you having sex with age are the same as those that stop you riding a bicycle: bad health, thinking it looks silly, or no bicycle.
                                                                           Alex Comfort (The Joy of Sex, 1972)

When it comes to talking about sex and intimacy, Sylvia Davidson certainly doesn’t beat around the bush.

An occupational therapist with The Toronto Hospital’s Regional Geriatric Program, part of Davidson’s job is helping seniors and healthcare professionals come to grips with what can be a delicate or awkward subject — sexuality and the aging process.

The meaning of sexuality
“It’s important to understand that sexuality means much more than just intercourse,” says Davidson. “It’s intimacy and closeness, sothing none of us of any age can get enough of.  “Sexuality is a subject everyone has opinions on, and it’s a very personal thing. Often it makes people feel uncomfortable, even threatened. What I try to do is to broach the subject in a gentle manner, always remembering it’s a sensitive issue.”

Not that Davidson goes out of her way to pry into people’s personal affairs. That’s not her style. She’s one of a new breed of therapists who believe people should talk openly about the barriers to intimacy caused by aging. As she works with patients recovering from operations or illnesses, helping them prepare for their return home, she observes how they interact with their partners. More often than not, she sees little physical contact between them.

“It’s something that almost never gets addressed, and I kind of stumbled across it,” she says. “Many of them seemed to have forgotten how nice it is to hold hands, to touch one another. So I’ll ask what they used to be like together. Once they start talking, I’ll inevitably be asked how they can be like that again.”

Factors which cause a decline in intimacy:

  • poor health
  • recovery from major operations
  • medication side-effects
  • mental attitudes.

While health issues can be overcome by adaptation — for example, learning new love-making positions to cope with the effects of arthritis; and changing medication may put a stop to impotency — psychological problems are often harder to treat.

Psychological problems
These psychological barriers can take on many forms. As we grow older, some of us slip into what Davidson calls the “granny and grandpa syndrome.”

“We begin to slip into the old myth that portrays granny in the kitchen baking cookies while grandpa sits on the porch in his rocking chair,” she says. “We can fall prey to other myths, too: that older people are asexual, that sex amongst the elderly is obscene, that men are impotent after 65, and that post-menopausal women aren’t able to make love. It’s nonsense, but sadly many elderly people end up believing these things themselves.”   

According to Davidson, part of the problem lies with healthcare professionals who aren’t trained to deal with issues of sexuality, and who often believe these same myths about their older patients. Doctors and other healthcare professionals, she says, can also be prudish, going out of their way to avoid talk of sexuality, even when the subject is brought up by the patient.

“It’s a barrier the individual is going to have to overcome,” she continues. “If you’re really having trouble broaching the subject, tell the doctor you’ve got something you need to talk about, be honest, be open, say there’s something you don’t feel totally comfortable asking. They will almost always get the clue, and it’s then up to them to take the initiative.”

Davidson also encourages her patients to read about sexuality, which she says is often the least threatening way to investigate the issue.

“Sex is just one small part of who you are as a person,” she says. “But it’s an important part, something which must be addressed.” 

In essence, sex does not merely exist in the later years, it can become more rewarding than it ever was.