Sexuality and Playfulness Aid the Aging and Ill

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Pamela Madsen and her sister lie on their backs on a bed, in lingerie, during their Sisters’ Boudoir photoshoot

As I was working on my book and thinking about what I might blog about this week, the good fairies that live in the internet dropped two lovely bits of sexuality-related articles into my lap.

The first is a Wall Street Journal report about a Dutch study, “Perceptions of Sexuality In Older Adults and Its Relationship To Cognitive Functioning.” The researchers found that respondents (n=1,747; 54% female; average age 71; 75% in partnered relationships) who said sexuality was important to them had higher scores on measures of mental acuity than those who didn’t think sexuality was important. In addition, for women respondents, there was a positive correlation between measures of mental acuity and the perception that their sex lives were currently pleasant. Ann Lukits, author of the WSJ article about the study, notes that 32% of respondents said their current sexual activity was pleasant; 42% said that “sexuality at an older age” was important or very important; and 61% said that intimacy and touching are “still needed by older people.”

The second is a deeply personal Huffington Post column by sex educator Pamela Madsen. Her piece describes a sexy boudoir photo shoot she arranged for herself and her sister upon learning that her sister’s breast cancer had not only returned, but had spread to her spine. Madsen explains the philosophy that inspired her to suggest the shoot, and then takes us through the day itself, even sharing some of the photos. (She gave me permission to use one of them here, and that’s what you see at the top of the post.) She describes the event as:

a chance for us to come together and laugh at our humanness, our scars, our imperfections, and celebrate our aging bodies. It would capture us together and apart, at our most vulnerable, naked and beautiful: facing the death that visits all of us in a celebration of life.

Here sister explains it like this:

I have gone through so much this summer: learning my cancer came back, planning my funeral, then learning I could live longer through treatment. For me, the shoot was about laughing at illness and pain. Throwing caution to the wind. Sharing this fun with my sister. Getting to a new place of feeling good about my body — at 61 — while going through a terminal illness.

What do these two articles, one about a research study on aging and the other about the personal experience of two sisters facing mortality have in common? They both remind us how important it is to factor sexuality into our thinking about the older or ill people in our lives. All too frequently we imagine that sex is the last thing on the minds of people facing the horror show of cancer or the grind of aging, but in reality sexuality might be among the more important things keeping them alive.

Of course the problem is that, at least in mainstream US culture, we treat sexuality as something that is a very private matter. Not many of us are comfortable discussing sex with family members or health care providers, the people most likely to be taking care of us when we are getting old or suffering from a debilitating illness. I applaud scholars who do research like this and I hope that it will inspire doctors, nurses, and other caregivers to talk to their older patients about sex. And I applaud the courage of people like Pamela and her sister who remind us that playfulness and eroticism are forms of self care, and ways we can help care for each other.

The book I’m working on, My Mother’s Cross: Cancer, Kink, Sex, and Death, takes up these themes as well, also in a very personal way. The book is about my mother, our relationship, and her late-life sexual awakening as a female dominant while dealing with kidney cancer, several years on dialysis, and then a terminal cancer that took her life after eight months of hospitalization. One thing that my mother and I found as we navigated the health care system during her struggle with a terminal cancer, was that not even the most compassionate of health care workers raised sexuality, intimacy, or erotic pleasure as a topic of concern. It’s easy to let an illness or an infirmity be the only thing we see about a person because it requires so much of our attention. But if we want to help people live with the best quality of life they can have, then we need to be vigilant about protecting playfulness, intimacy, and physical contact where those things are wanted. And we won’t know if they are wanted unless we are able to talk about them.

As with many difficult things, it’s easy to assume someone else will do it. The thing is, if we all think that, then nobody will. I encourage each of us to find the courage to be that person who initiates the conversation.

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Photo by Lori Berkowitz, used by permission of Pamela Madsen. Lori Berkowitz’s fabulous work can be found at http://loriberkowitzphoto.com

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