Granny and Gramps Still Got Their Groove On

(10/7/13)  It may not be something people think about often, but get used to it:  The elderly in America today are a pretty frisky bunch.  Averaging several studies carried out during the past five years, about 75% of adults aged 60-85 are not only active sexually, but a large portion also categorize themselves as “frequently active” and/or including “alternative activities” in their sex lives.  This might seem to be a bit counter-intuitive on the surface, but then again, real life often is.  The bottom line:  It’s good news.

Setting aside the associated social and political issues for a moment, one of the main reasons why some may be surprised at the high numbers is the prevailing assumption of diminished physical abilities among the elderly, particularly towards the higher end of the age range studied.  While that may have been a perfectly reasonable conclusion to draw in the past, recent advances in medicine and general care (not to mention our friend, the little blue pill) have resulted in Americans maintaining their sexual health and vitality well beyond previously considered age norms.  Additionally, it’s been found that maintaining a more active sex life sustains vibrancy, offers ongoing physical exercise and counters many negative psychological impacts associated to aging.  The emotional benefits in particular are significant when it comes to both an overall sense of well being as well as a positive physical state.  While it’s true that frequency does tend to decrease as age increases, a consensus among these studies found that interest remains high throughout the range.

Another reason why there may be some astonishment is simply because, until recently, there have been very few in-depth studies done on elder sex.  Politically, it’s been more popular to fund projects that focus on sex among teens and young adults.  Socially, there’s a general reverence for seniors that stereotypically disrupts any notion that they might actually be sneaking off for a little happy-nekkid-pagan-dancin’.  In other words, any perception that seniors have long since stopped getting jiggy with it is simply because, generally speaking, no one asks them.  The irony is that the few studies done report that senior citizens are genuinely quite happy to participate and they’re exceptionally forthcoming in their responses; most noting that the response rates were higher among seniors than any other age range.  Take that, youngins’.

Frankly, although it’s a subject that doesn’t usually come up as a priority when looking at sex trends in America, a highly sexed elderly population shouldn’t be so surprising given the specific life experiences of today’s seasoned generation.  For example, a 75 year old today likely developed their sexuality during the 1960s–an era of “free love” and social rebellion.  Having come through that wild ride of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, it really shouldn’t be that much of a stretch to believe that they’re just as into it all now as they were then.  Perhaps it’s absurd to go so far as to claim that 80 is the new 20, but it’s great to know that “young at heart” actually has some real meaning today.

Yes, it may be a little uncomfortable to think about Grandma and Grandpa “that way” but too bad.  Apparently they could care less about what anyone thinks.  And to that we say:  Good for them.  Twice.

Can We Talk?

(8/19/13)  Ask just about any therapist what it takes to improve someone’s sex life and at some point you’re bound to hear the infamous, “Communication is the key.”  Good advice, yes?  Well, it sounds pretty basic, straightforward and even simple when it’s parroted about so unanimously, but if it’s so good, why do people have such difficulty in discussing sex?

While such wonderful counsel makes perfect sense intellectually, people are funny animals when it comes to matters of meaning.  Emotional filters usually get the upper hand, sorting messages into one of three bins:  If we believe that we’ll get something useful from a conversation, we’re all into it.  If we think that it’ll result in some pain, the barriers snap up.  If neither is the case, then it’s a quick trip to Ambivalenceville.  It’s a natural process—part of being human—but it also impedes communication in ways that few are genuinely conscious of at the time it’s happening.

Yes, communication is the key, but in many cases, it’s also the lock.  Since adults have been generally socialized into specific (and usually predictable) emotional response modes based on values, norms and immediate moods, communicating about subjects that involve some measure of discomfort will usually provoke default resistance.  As this applies to sexual topics in particular, if the nail isn’t hit squarely on the head right out of the gate, the resulting awkwardness can create real obstacles that become more and more difficult to overcome.  Once that ball is rolling, the more one party tries to break through, the deeper the other party will tend to dig in–until the impasse causes an unbreakable lock.

Additionally, talking about sex these days is a lot like dealing with one of those autocorrect apps on your smartphone.  We may think we’re saying one thing, but for some strange reason, it seems to come across as something else.  Unless, of course, you really meant to say that you’re taking a trip to “Dizzy World,” the peril of emotional autocorrect (aka: interpretation) is that it often makes things worse, even when all intentions are good.  A common example of this:  One partner tries to help the other by being more specific about what they’d like in their sex life.  They think they’re being positive and helpful, of course, when they calmly state, “I would like it if you did “X” differently….” but the other partner, applying their emotional filters, hears the message as, “You suck at this and I want something/someone else.”  If this sort of communications zigzag isn’t nipped in the bud, it’s likely to result in insecurity, stubbornness and defensiveness–none of which will support improvement.  The problem is that it’s incredibly difficult to stop dead in the tracks once emotion ramps up, so any additional discussion becomes increasingly heated until it eventually boils over.  If enough of these occur, eventually the incentive for trying diminishes until, well, you know.

Why does it have to be this way?  It’s easy to say that it doesn’t, but that’s a completely intellectual response.  Sure, people could follow the many 4, 6 or 9-step methods out there for better communication but most would agree (probably through significant personal experience) that it’s highly unlikely one is inclined to stop and pull out a checklist in the heat of a competitive moment.  If they were so inclined, the business of sex and relationship counseling wouldn’t be as booming as it is today.  Yes, resolving to practice better methods in advance is a possible option, but the reactive nature of emotion-based communication seems to effectively counter most proactive efforts.  These may be excuses, but they’re perfectly reasonable given the state of our collective socialization in recent times.  The bottom line is that it’s a complex problem with no clear cut, one-size-fits-all solution, but here’s a somewhat radical suggestion:  Embrace the chaos.

Clinically applying an intellectual process to such a highly personal and emotional subject as sex may make some sense in a sterile vacuum, but real life is rarely so neat and tidy.  Accepting, understanding and positively leveraging the chaotic and often illogical nature inherent in interpersonal relationships significantly increases one’s chances of succeeding in them–especially when a high-risk, high-value matter is at hand.  By recognizing and actively addressing the emotional elements as the priority, patterns will emerge from the chaos and become exceptionally useful in building a more stable communications bridge.  Perhaps it’ll be a matter of using specific vocabulary that they’re more comfortable with.  Maybe it’ll be based on making something into a fun bonding experience instead of a challenging critique.  Conceivably, it could even be something as simple as ensuring the “right” emotional mood is set before tackling the matter in question (or smartly holding off if the circumstances aren’t favorable).  The approaches are as endless at the possible scenarios, but the basis is the same:  Work with–and even feature–the specific emotional factors involved rather than against them.

Oh, and make it a point to turn the emotional autocorrect off.