People everywhere are fascinated by sex. I am not the first to say so. We wonder what other people do and when and what it means to them. And some wonder how long it continues.
When I was in my 20s, I naively thought that sex was only for the young. It simply did not occur to me that people over 40 continued with such activities.
This was nothing to do with any connection to child-bearing, but simply to the assumption that only the young had an appetite for – or interest in – sexual relationships.
As we age, we learn more – about this as well as everything else. There is, of course, much more research now.
Surveys will tell you about the extent of sexual activity at different ages. But few of these involve people over 70. And we are often reluctant to raise the issue with people we know.
The story of my parents
Of all the stories I tell about my family, the one which always gains immediate attention is one about my father.
My parents lived in an independent apartment in a retirement community in central Pennsylvania. They moved in when they were both roughly 80 and died within three months of each other, 10 years later. That was nearly 20 years ago.
After about five years, my mother developed vascular dementia. This is, of course, every married person’s worst fear. The husband or wife is no longer what they once were, but you are still married. And it is harder and harder to cope with the sheer physical demands.
My mother remained in the family apartment for well over a year, with a caretaker having been hired to help with her daily needs.
But eventually, it was too much for my father to manage and it was agreed that she would move to the Assisted Living section of the community. She was looked after, but he could pop in several times a day to see her.
He rarely complained, at least to me. It was just something that had happened.
An affair begins at 90
In the meantime, his eyesight had worsened, and he was losing one of his great pleasures – reading. He listened to a lot of audiobooks (and complained that there was no easy way to find the place where you fell asleep).
He had a friend, a somewhat younger woman, who came in to read to him. He was terribly pleased about this and talked about it – and her – quite frequently in our regular phone calls.
I should have seen it coming. When a man starts mentioning a woman (or vice versa) quite often, it tends to mean that something more than friendship is involved. But it just didn’t occur to me.
My daughter suggested that it was a possibility and I thought, no, that is unlikely. Not because the thought upset me, but they just seemed too old.
I went to visit around the time of his 90th birthday, when we were holding a party for him. Soon after I arrived, he sat down and clearly wanted to communicate something to me.
He had never sought very intimate discussions, but this time was different. He mentioned the name of the woman, who I had not yet met, and said he wanted me to know that they had become ‘an item’. I remember thinking the word was odd.
He was very clear. This was not ‘simply kissing and cuddling’, it was the real thing. Indeed, he said his doctor thought it was terrific for his health. There was no mention of love, but that did not seem important. The key thing was that he was happy. And he was. He was then 90 and she was 83.
I was surprised, but also delighted. Whatever my views about fidelity in marriage, they do not extend to the time when one partner is effectively no longer there. I made this very clear and could see him visibly relax.
He had wanted me to know but had been frightened of my reaction. He said his worst fear was that some other resident would tell my mother, but it did not look like that had happened. He still continued to visit her as before.
My father and his lady friend never moved in together, although perhaps they stayed in each other’s apartments when I was not there. I did not press for such details.
She continued to be a regular presence in his life until he died. Indeed, the night he died, she went to the hospital and sat with his body for a long time.
When do people stop having sex?
I don’t know when – and if – people stop having sex. I suspect there is a lot of it about. Certainly, in the retirement community, it was common for couples to spring up quite quickly after the death of a partner.
But I do know about my father. And when I tell this story, I have never heard a reaction other than “what a wonderful story” or “so, there’s hope then”. I’m sure he would be delighted for you to know.
A version of this article can be found in my book, The Granny Who Stands on her Head: Reflections on growing older (see getbook.at/Stands-on-Head)
It was first published on SixtyandMe.com