Back when I was posting the perimenopausal interviews, a reader contacted me. “If you want to write about sex in older people, I’d be happy to be interviewed!”
Uh . . . yes, please! I don’t hear much (anything?) about sex in older couples (not so much about the actual sex act but rather how physical relationships change as we age). And stories from real people — ordinary, flawed, thoughtful people — are invaluable because it’s through them that I can gain perspective. The more I know what to expect, the better prepared I am to gracefully (I hope!) handle the changes when they happen to me.
So thank you, Meredith. Thank you for trusting me with your story and allowing me to share it here. Your openness and vulnerability is an enormous gift.
How old were you when you went through menopause?
As an older, post menopausal woman, what has surprised you about sex?
When I was younger, I saw people in their 70’s as really old, so it has surprised me that I don’t “feel” like what I thought 74 would be. In some ways, age really is just a number! On the other hand, my body is a constant reminder that I’m aging. Now, having sex takes more work, but it’s still enjoyable.
Do you still feel desire?
Yes. It’s less, but certainly not gone. I look at my 77-year-old husband walking around naked after a shower, smelling of shampoo and soap, and I still want to nuzzle his soft, now wrinkled skin, and have him jump in bed with me! And in those moments, I forget that climaxing takes longer and is more work.
What are some of the challenges that complicated sex?
My husband started experiencing erectile dysfunction in his late 60’s. I wondered if it was about me, which I know is the way partners can think if something is askew. I’d ask him if I was doing all I could, and he’d say it wasn’t my fault at all, but I kept wondering if he was just being nice. Was my crepey skin a turn-off? My soft tummy and saggy breasts? And then when he was diagnosed with circulation issues, I realized it really was physical. We got Cialis, a medication that’s similar to Viagra, but it wasn’t just a simple matter of popping a pill and everything was like it was when we were younger; now making love is less spontaneous. We have to plan for it.
How do you plan for sex?
I read an article somewhere about scheduling “sex dates.” While they can be helpful for couples of all ages who need to make an effort to find time for intimacy, they are especially important for those who have to get a little help from drugs like Viagra and Cialis.
Do you miss the spontaneity?
In the car on the way home from visiting friends, I talked to my husband about these interview questions, and he said, “I get a hard-on just talking about this! Let’s stop and find a spot in that cornfield and make mad love.” And then we both were quiet, remembering how BC (before children) we carried a blanket in the car specifically for spontaneous stops in beautiful, secluded places while on road trips. We still have a secret place where we go in the embracing warmth of summer, just a thin blanket between us and the earth, twigs jabbing underneath and swatting at the gnats but surrounded by the grandeur of trees, the filtered sunlight and breeze caressing our septuagenarian bodies.
How does sex feel different?
Just as we were figuring out the right Cialis dose and timing, vaginal sex started to be painful for me. I experimented with various types of lubricants, to no avail. And then an ob/gyn nurse practitioner saved the day when she explained that no amount of lubricant would solve the problem since the vaginal muscles lose elasticity after menopause. As the post-menopausal years of low estrogen pile up, the vagina actually becomes narrower and shorter. Making love regularly can help prevent these changes, she said. But what does “regular” mean? I wondered. How often do I need to have sex in order to counter the effects of these hormonal and vascular changes? Every day? Three times a week? I now think that wasn’t the greatest (or even most accurate) advice. Our bodies age even if we go to the gym every day.
Did you ever learn the answer?
No, but she prescribed Estrace, a hormonal cream, which worked beautifully . . . until I began waking up with the symptoms of morning sickness and my breasts became tender like when I’d been pregnant. So then she wrote a prescription for vaginal capsules called Estriol, a natural hormone, and that worked — kind of. It beautifully softened the vaginal tissues and produced luxurious lubrication, but I also started waking up in the night as if I was in menopause all over again. Agh! Like the balancing act with the dose and timing of Cialis, through trial and error, I eventually kind-of found the right dosage so that I can (mostly) sleep again and make love without pain.
Also, the isolation of COVID was great for our sex lives! We could make love anytime or anywhere in the house without the fear of someone dropping by. We had lots of time, but now that we’re busier again, it takes more effort.
If you went through menopause at age 50, and you didn’t have vaginal discomfort until age 65-ish, was sex pretty much “as per usual” up until that point?
Yes, it was. Of course, there were times when one of us was busy or stressed so we had less sex. We’d comment on it and then jokingly call our talking about it “oral sex.” We often didn’t have sex every week: it’s the quality of the connection that counts. We like each other, so making love felt natural and right, the icing on the cake. We were fortunate in that neither of us used sex as a weapon and both of us enjoy physical touch.
Maybe fortunate isn’t the right word; rather, we made a deliberate choice not to weaponize sex. We chose not to see saying no to each other as rejection, and we regularly worked on our marriage, our communication. We widened our definition of foreplay after we read that foreplay begins right after we make love and extends until we make love again. Picking up the other person’s chores when they’re busy is foreplay. We went to marital therapy two different times over the years, not because we were in crisis, but to prevent one. We have conflicts and fights like any couple, but our counselor told us every marriage has solvable and unsolvable problems. So we chose, and continue to choose, not to let our unsolvable problems define us.
I’m impressed by your open communication with your husband, and by your tenacity.
We sometimes look at each other and ask, Is it worth it? Might it be better to gracefully accept that our bodies are aging and let go of the feeling that vaginal sex is the be-all and end-all? Perhaps our bodies are giving us the message that it’s time to focus more on cuddling, words of affirmation, and being together in companionable silence and mindfulness, savoring our memories and the gift of today. Just as retirement made us change our routines, maybe it’s time for a transformation in this area of our lives, too.
So we decided to try a different approach on our next sex date. We held and massaged each other, and talked. And it was nice. Just, nice. Afterward, we both (independently) decided that wasn’t a go. Even though making love takes more effort and doesn’t end in explosive climaxes like in our younger days, we’re not yet ready for this change.
Do you have any good resources to share?
We found this NYTimes article about Sex After 70 helpful, and the suggestion of sex toys intriguing. So we decided to send for some, which is something we’ve not done before. We’re currently conducting “incognito” research on the internet, not fully trusting but hoping it truly is incognito. We’re both curious about what we’ll choose and what THAT will be like!
Do you talk with friends about the changes in your sex life as you age?
I wish! I’d love to sit down with women my age and have an open talk! I once made a comment to several close friends about needing a new lubricant because sex was becoming painful, and it fell flat. There was a little giggle from one, but then a quick change of subject. I didn’t persist, but I was disappointed. However, writing about this now makes me think that maybe I need a different approach. Like, come up with a few good questions, and send invitations to a few friends for a Women, Wine (or tea), and Sex Talk evening, inviting their questions, too. Then people can self-select.
Do you have any advice for younger women?
Cherish your body, even if it isn’t perfect. Cherish and work on your relationship: there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship. Find your own rhythm and norms. If your relationship is toxic, go to therapy and you may need to leave. If you’re both happy and content with infrequent sex or a sexless marriage, that’s fine. One size doesn’t fit all. The most important thing isn’t whether you’re having sex at 70, but being alive inside and enjoying the gift and companionship of each other.
Thank you so much, Meredith!