Sex and the pity: The over-60s taboo

PUBLISHED: 11:04 14 February 2007 | UPDATED: 14:27 07 September 2010

Bridget Galton discovers there are no reasons why older people shouldn t discuss sex The Institute of Psychoanalysis is holding a timely probe into one of the last taboos - sexuality in the elderly. Andrew Balfou

Sex and the pity: The over-60s taboo

Bridget Galton discovers there are no reasons why older people shouldn't discuss sex

The Institute of Psychoanalysis is holding a timely probe into one of the last taboos - sexuality in the elderly.

Andrew Balfour, who works with pensioners at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships in Belsize Park, and Jane Peringer, a psychoanalyst who sees elderly patients at her private practice, spoke at a symposium in Shirland Road, Maida Vale, on the Saturday before Valentine's Day.

Peringer says there is resistance among the younger generation towards contemplating sexual activity among the over-60s.

"In a younger person's mind, once you hit the menopause that's it. But why would you suddenly not need closeness and intimacy just because you are old?

"It seems to be very difficult for that to be discussed and, because of the taboo nature of it, elderly people can't talk about having sex."

She adds: "Problematically they also come from a pre-war generation when they weren't used to talking openly about sex. Hopefully, as the more sexually liberated generation gets older, that will work through to more liberated attitudes."

Peringer says products such as Viagra and lubricants can overcome the biggest physical problems of sex in old age - namely dryness and male impotence. But she is inevitably more concerned with the psychological barriers to

enjoying intimacy.

Frailty, illness, bereavement and contemplating death can all sap the spirit and joie de vivre that feed our sexuality.

"It's about state of mind, about how you feel about being sexual, even feeling you are allowed to be sexual," she says.

"There is a conflict between the forward thrust of life, which includes a zest for making relationships, and an urge to retreat from all that. In later life the balance becomes harder to maintain as you lose income, lose health and self-esteem, it's much easier for the elderly to withdraw from life.

"They are more likely to become depressed. It's a struggle to stay on the side of life, be forward looking, energetic

and positive."

Peringer recommends accepting that death is not too far away rather than turning away from the terror of it. "Accept that you are going to die and you

are freer to make the most of being alive."

She also says that "sexuality in old age doesn't arrive from

Mars" - people who have had difficulty with their sexuality or relationships when younger will probably continue to do so in

old age.

Ultimately, she urges taking a wider, Freudian view of sexuality, as enjoyment, desire, and intimate relationships and engagement with life.

"Freud was the first to talk about children as sexual beings - not about them having sex but about the ways feeding, touching and caressing are none the

less sexual. People were outraged but it's become more accepted now. In a way sexuality in old age is a similar taboo today but all those infantile things are important to the frail and elderly.

"Sexuality is not just about having sex but about being attended to in a tender way at a time when we are vulnerable.

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