Carol MacHendrie knows a lot about whatï¿½s happening behind the closed bedroom doors of Americaï¿½s aging boomer population. A clinical social worker for 33 years, with a practice in Santa Fe since 1980, MacHendrie is trained in family therapy; the vast majority of her clients are couples. She has taught at Syracuse University and the College of Santa Fe, and studied at the world-famous Kinsey Institute for Sex Research. In addition to her private practice, MacHendrie gives workshops and talks on sex after 50, a topic she calls ï¿½passionate aging.ï¿½ Her next workshop for couples is just after Valentineï¿½s Day, on Feb. 16. For more information, visit www.passionateaging.net
SFR: Describe what you mean by ï¿½passionate aging.ï¿½***image2***
CM: Thatï¿½s actually a complicated question. But to sum it up succinctly, itï¿½s about emotional maturity. Itï¿½s an affirmation of mature sexuality arising out of a passionate life. Itï¿½s an opportunity to experience aging, especially of your sexual self, with appreciation of oneï¿½s whole life and all of oneï¿½s experiences.
Look, the good news is, itï¿½s 2008. There are 78 million aging baby boomers, and we came of age in the generation of sex, drugs and rock ï¿½nï¿½ roll. We came of age when sexuality and relationships experienced some revolutionary changes. So passionate aging is an opportunity to continue to explore, but within the context of relationships, with trust and intimacy. Itï¿½s an awareness of how sexually adventurous and exploratory people can be no matter their age.
What do your clients bring to you, hoping to find resolution for?
There are a lot of different issues. A big one, especially for older females, is lack of a partner. In general, thereï¿½s loss of desire, difficulty reaching orgasm, issues around body image and aging, erectile dysfunction and loss of libido, as well as vaginal dryness for women during and after menopause.
Whatï¿½s your stance on medication?
I was part of the Viagra Club! Pfizer asked several physicians and therapists to keep track of the experiences people were having in the early days of ED meds. Absolutely see a physician if thereï¿½s erectile dysfunction. Also, after menopause, the walls of the vagina can thin, making intercourse uncomfortable. This can be easily relieved by using certain creams. But these medical solutions donï¿½t address relationship issues; theyï¿½re not a magic bullet. Sometimes, for example, things get tense when a man goes on ED drugs, because before that, the couple was used to not having sex, and now it enters into the relationship. This is not always welcomed by the female partner for a variety of reasons.
You mentioned a diminished libido in older people. Donï¿½t Viagra and other drugs solve that?
You usually donï¿½t have the same libido as you age. Drugs like Viagra donï¿½t provide a solution for that. The solution for that is arousal, adventure, excitement and caring. People need sometimes to relax and get beyond being ashamed of not having the desire they used to. Thereï¿½s a lot of anger and frustration around the lack of acceptance of the sexual realities of aging. And itï¿½s a vicious circle because anger, hurt, disappointment and resentment are, of course, some of the greatest libido killers.
How do individuals and couples get out of that circle?
Good communication is a powerful turn-on. Conflict resolution, sometimes around issues that are decades old, can work wonders. Restoring levels of trust and caring. One of the real issues thatï¿½s hard for people in a longterm relationship to talk about is plain old boredom.
Yes, people simply need to put some fun back into things. Make out in the car, in the kitchen, in the woods. Be sensual, use aromatherapy, get in the bathtub together, try massage, try romantic things like a love note, a surprise phone call. Remember ways you might have done it when you were dating, ***image1***be creative and be romantic. Mix things up away from an established ï¿½sex scheduleï¿½ that may have emerged in the relationship: What would it mean to do it Sunday morning rather than Saturday night? The kids are goneï¿½no oneï¿½s around. Why not?
So the loss of libido is partly to be accepted, but older people can also cultivate interest in sex?
Itï¿½s use it or lose it, really. Itï¿½s not like oneï¿½s sexual feelings when youï¿½re younger. Some older people are still having sex fairly regularly but they come to see me anyway. Itï¿½s other issues. The sex life is still going on but itï¿½s not so great because thereï¿½s underlying problems in the relationship. And itï¿½s still very important to older people, contrary to the stereotype. Studies in both The New England Journal of Medicine and by the AARP show a much higher rate of sexual activity and desire for an active and fulfilling sex lifeï¿½even among people 75 and olderï¿½than the stereotype would lead one to believe. At the same time, half of the respondents to these surveys indicated physical or other problems.
What about the situation where one partner wants it and the other doesnï¿½t?
That presents itself initially fairly often at first. Active menopause, for example, often involves a significant drop in desire. But often itï¿½s about a personï¿½s entire history, and the whole history of the relationship. Itï¿½s been an ongoing issue, prior to aging.
How do you help couples when one partner wants more sex than the other?
Itï¿½s about compromise and finding out how both people go beyond their comfort zones. Thereï¿½s really a different goal than ï¿½more sex.ï¿½ Itï¿½s more about arousal and experiencing passion and intimacy again or more often. Once people find ways to get aroused, then they often come aroundï¿½if youï¿½ll excuse the pun. Part of the pattern is this sense of heaviness, of performance, of duty or obligation. So how can people get rid of that, realize itï¿½s not a duty but a gift?
How do some of the health issues or chronic pain issues connected with aging affect your clients?
Itï¿½s a tough situation sometimes. But I always work with people to be creative. Thereï¿½s so much beyond intercourse, for example. Kissing, touching, fondling, oral sex. You can enjoy a sex life if you can be flexible, if you can be creative in an open and honest relationship. Itï¿½s about acceptance. We canï¿½t turn the clock back. Itï¿½s not about a cosmetic makeover or the eternal obsession with youth. I donï¿½t criticize people who feel better about themselves through cosmetic surgery. I mean, whatever people choose, I support. But the real breakthrough is in accepting and enjoying the aging process with a sense of humor and with love. Peopleï¿½s bodies change, but, for example, I might suggest they look into each otherï¿½s eyes more. The eyes are unchanging, the window to the soul.
And for older single people, what do you recommend?
Well, one of the biggest areas of anxiety for older single women is a fear of rejection, especially around sexual health history and safe sex. When we were younger, it seemed like there wasnï¿½t so much disease. So thereï¿½s a fear of rejection around requiring the use of a condom, around being frank and open about sexual health history. Itï¿½s still true that most older women will be with a partner their own age or older, whereas older single men often seek renewed sexual excitement with younger partners. Either way, many older single people have a lot of trust issues, a lot of confidence issues and body-image issues that can be easily resolved so that the playfulness and creativity can return. â?¤