Sex and the Mature Single, A Nation in Flux

I have a number of clients who are in their fifties and beyond. Some of these clients are single, either from being divorced or from being widowed. Many of them want to talk about the question of sex and “dating” after the age of 50. This topic is a real challenge to me for a number of reasons.

As a clinician it is not my job to “judge” people for the choices they make or to “tell” them what they could or ought to do. Most of my clients already come to the table with a boatload of “shoulds” that inhibit, or limit, their options. These shoulds, or musts, really cause them difficulty in part because they are old scripts. Scripts that these warm and wonderful people learned in childhood about sex and sexual behavior are so internalized and reflexive that the individual’s ability to make choices based on current reality become hampered and limited, if not blocked entirely.

In all honesty, I should also confess that I am possessed of a script of “shoulds” around the topic of sex and sexual freedom or sexual behavior. I grew up in an age similar to that of many of my clients. I am in my mid-sixties and I “know” reflexively what I am supposed to do or not do. This helps me empathize and sympathize with the plight of my clients. The script we were taught as children is that we will grow up and fall in love with one person, marry them and live happily ever after. Within the context of that lifetime relationship, sex is expected to be an active and fulfilling part. But what happens if the relationship does not satisfy and/or last a lifetime? What if we discover in our fifties or sixties, or even seventies that we are alone, without a sexual partner, and yet still feel the urge and the need to have sexual relationships? What do we do? How do we “date” and find someone to become a sexual partner? Can that person just be a friend with benefits or do we have to fall in love and marry? What about that old demon, “masturbation?” Can we do that now? I am pretty sure we won’t go blind if I do, but what about the shame, the guilt, the sinfulness?

These are very real questions with which my clients struggle. The examples are the realm of late night comedians. There are many jokes that can be told and movies are made about the conundrums we all face if we find ourselves in these positions. Yet they are painful, disturbing and anxiety provoking problems for those who suffer from them.

Think about the issue of grown children. What do you tell your thirty five year old daughter and her three preteens about your spending the night with your “friend” (or as one of my clients likes to say, “my special friend”emphasis hers.) If you vacation with your grandmother and her boyfriend, do you have issues or feelings about her sharing a room with her “friend?” Suppose your parents have just gotten divorced after thirty five years of marriage and your father begins to date a woman twenty five years old? What if your mother does the same? I have one 54 year old, female client who is having what she calls “wahoo” sex with a twenty four year old man. She is not interested in this man for anything other than sexual release and his athleticism.

Sometimes the issue about which mature people are most concerned is the relationship with their children and extended family, not as much with the issue of being sexual with their new playmate. They worry about making decisions that will protect the assets they have for the inheritance of their own children, rather than the children of their new friend. Entire families often get brought into these discussions and the conversations can be heated and painful. Do you want Dad’s new bimbo to inherit your great-grandmother’s house? How can you prevent it? Should you? Family therapy is a fun-filled challenge when these issues arise. But, I digress from my original topic.

I was recently approached by an 84 year old man in the public library where I was doing some research. He saw me using the computer to look up something and whispered to me, “Do you know anything about computers?” I asked him what he wanted to know and he replied that he had recently met a 50 year old woman in a bar. She was very nice and had given him her name and phone number. He wanted to look her up to see what he could find out about her. His exact words to me were, “I wonder if she is just after my money? You know there is no fool like an old fool! I am afraid she is just looking for a sugar daddy.”

This sweet old man was lonely and alone. We talked for awhile and he communicated that he wanted to make a nice female friend he could go out with and spend time with. I did not ask him if he wanted to have sex with her. He was not my client and it was not my business, but I did wonder. Sex for 80 year olds is still a possibility in the historical understanding of the term, but there are also different meanings that can be applied to the short hand term “sex.” Does he just want to be touched? Does he just want to touch and be held? Does he want to please a woman one more time in his life physically? Does it have to include intercourse and release, or can it just be holding, touching and looking with soft, sweet words?

You may find yourself wondering whose business it is anyway. My point is that the client comes to the therapist to help work through the questions and the social taboos. They have to deal with the “musturbations” of Albert Ellis ( Ellis uses the term to mean the shoulds that we all feel, as in “I must go visit grandma” or I “must” go to church), and the social messages of their religious faith, their cultural blind spots and their own physical energies and needs. My job is to help them figure out what they are really asking and how they would feel about themselves given any of the possible options they might choose. Of course, this presumption is based on the idea of them already having a potential “mark.” What about those who are considering looking for someone? Where does one go when one is seventy- five to find women to court or men to date? Do you go to church, the gym or internet dating sites? How do you vet these people once you have found them? What are the rules? Do you kiss on the first date and move on to second and third base, and then the home run phase?

Since women generally live longer than men, the pool of choice for women is much more limited. Do you know the term cougar? How would you feel if your grandmother was one? What if she wanted to have Christmas at her house and include her boy toy? We may not have thought about the answers, but we have to begin to face the questions themselves and evolve our thinking because it is happening in many families today. Divorce rates are going up among the sixty-and-over population, nursing homes are having to provide “relationship” rooms for those residents who want to have some together time. Grown children are having to check their assumptions and look at the reality of the life their parents are living (often when they are attempting to model and set standards of behavior for their teenagers at the same time.)

Our culture is evolving in part because we are living longer. Our standards and our options are in flux. As a therapist, I have to make sure that I am not blinded nor bound by my own cultural binds. I ask myself, “How can I help? What do I need to hear? What is the client asking me for, and what do they want from me?” I don’t know what my answers will be, but I believe in the process of therapy and in the healing and growth that can come from just talking things through with someone safe and non-judgmental. I want to strive to be that person as a clinician.

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