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Good sex not the preserve of the young

Date March 12, 2015

Patricia Edgar

Desire for intimacy does not fade with age, so why are old people's needs and priorities regularly left out of national research?

Illustration: Matt Golding

Illustration: Matt Golding Photo:

The film The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, like its predecessor, is already a resounding commercial success. And yet these are films about old people. Yes, there is an increase in cinema attendance by viewers over the age of 65, but these films attract audiences by telling stories that resonate with profound and universal truths.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was about reinvention in old age. A group of pensioners facing economic hardship at home in Britain find online a retirement hotel in India and bravely decide to take their chances on a new life abroad. The hotel is run down and run chaotically - not what it was represented to be. But the oldies decide to make the most of their predicament. They are not there to decline into passive retirement and sit quietly taking their pills. They take charge, setting about finding a purpose, through new jobs and new relationships, while exploring their new world of Jaipur.

In the process, they rub off each other's edges, but they care and look out for one another. The deep emotions we all feel through acceptance, loss, grief, insecurity, death and rejection are woven into the characters' experiences.

The sequel focuses on our universal search for love and companionship that does not diminish as we age. Each character seeks a friend who will become a partner. The life lived in the Exotic Marigold Hotel is an exemplar of what the Harvard Grant Study, begun in 1938, has found about longevity. Controlling for variables such as income, ill health and divorce, those with a positive attitude to life - those who see ageing as an opportunity to reinvent themselves, who maintain relationships, and get on with the business of living - actually do live longer, more successful and healthier lives.  Demography and genes do not fully determine our destiny. Lives can change and get better, according to one's attitude to life and the effort we make. 

The sexual shenanigans among some of the characters in hotel - from a coy developing friendship to one that is more raunch -  make an important point about ageing. It might come as a surprise to younger generations who assume sex is an activity of the young, and that well before old age, people become asexual. 

In fact, we oldies are much like them. We yearn for deep attachment and intimate love, just as they do; for conversation; for company when we go out and when we come home at night. Yet, personal revelations by old people about intimacy are treated as a bit of a joke. As Roger Angell, a senior editor with The New Yorker wrote recently at the age of 93: "I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip, or a foot, or a bare expanse of a shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that never lose the longing."

Denial of this fact is perpetuated by research that deliberately excludes older adults from samples. The British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles,  which provides an illustration of the sexual practices of today's adults, samples only adults aged 18 to 44. The Australian Study of health and Relationships did better last year, raising the upper end of its sample age from 59 to 69, but still the fastest-growing segment of the population is excluded. 

The assumption behind such sampling is that those beyond 69 are frail, incompetent, impotent and do not engage in sex. This is a myth that needs correction. 

Jane Ussher is the Professor of Women's Health Psychology at the University of Western Sydney. Her research shows good sex is not the preserve of the young. Of 602 women aged between 45 and 70 who participated in her study, the majority were still sexually active. Even those with a chronic illness will find ways to be intimate, including touching, masturbation, kissing and hugging, as well as use of sex toys and lubrication. Indeed, many couples reported that their sex life was better as a result. 

Another researcher, Sue Malta,  found older women aged 61 to 85 were just as likely to initiate new relationships on internet dating websites as men of the same age. She discovered that relationships became sexual quickly and for many women, they were more enjoyable than their previous (mostly) long-term married experiences. Some participants had a series of short-term relationships and others had multiple partners. 

Some aged-care homes are rife with new-found love affairs. Family members can be shocked and upset to find an ageing parent cohabiting with a new partner.

The value of intimate partnerships needs recognition, as they bring health benefits including increased relaxation, decreased pain sensitivity, improved cardiovascular health, lower levels of depression, increased self-esteem, and better relationship satisfaction. They lead to longer quality living.

Beyond food and housing, older adult needs and priorities are regularly left out of national health, research and policy agendas. As we debate the impact of longevity on the economy we need to study life in the Exotic Marigold Hotel. Its occupants are role models for life in the prime of old age.

Patricia Edgar is the author of In Praise of Ageing and is an ambassador for the National Ageing Research Institute.