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The quality of closeness

[Times photo: Jennifer Davis]
John and Shirley Phillips chat during their daily tea on the back porch of their Sarasota home. The couple, both previously widowed, met at a roller skating rink in St. Petersburg four years ago.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 25, 2001

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life,
for which the first was made

-- Robert Browning

* * *

As we grow older, intimacy is often harder to find. But age can offer new avenues and deepened expressions of both romance and friendship - if they are sought.

Romance eluded Shirley Wiest during her youth.

Her first husband broke his neck soon after their wedding, rendering her a nurse for 35 years until he died five years ago. He was a fine, easy-going man, but sex and children weren't possible.

At 60, the widow Wiest found herself primed for a new companion, hopeful that, this time, she might discover all of love's reward.

As single women know, the odds of romance lengthen as years pass. Older men often are married or set in their ways. And they die off like lovebugs on a steamy country road.

Undaunted, Shirley drafted a list of requirements: He had to be under 71, energetic and spiritual. No smoking, no facial hair, no pot belly. He could drink socially, but no boozing. And no wheelchairs, please.

In this time of tragedy, a need for human contact
Two weeks ago, as horrific stories poured from New York and Washington and Gabrielle pushed into the bay area with pelting rain and tornadic winds, I had just finished re-reading Stephen Nohlgren's moving stories about how older people care for themselves and each other.

'The perfect match'
From the start of their relationship, it was like looking in a mirror.

Seeking companionship in a limited field
Still, says a Spring Hill man, "I find myself able to laugh and have a good time with my friends, straight or gay. I don't consider myself in any way or shape sad."

"I think the second time around you should be more fussy," she says.

Such dogged selectivity defies conventional wisdom, which advocates flexibility later in life. Be accepting, the argument goes. Open your eyes to the possibilities.

But maybe there's something just as magical about deciding exactly what you want, then hunting for it with a passion -- because darned if Jeff Phillips didn't walk right through that skating rink door.

He was an English emigre living in Bradenton who was depressed over his wife's death. Friends had dragged him off for a seniors' outing at Southland Roller Palace in Pinellas Park.

Shirley, who visits there frequently, had her antennae out. "Ooh, I have to find out who this man is," she thought. "We breezed by each other and said hello and introduced ourselves."

At the end of the day, she extended herself a bit further. She told him she was glad he came and hoped he'd come back.

That was it -- one smiling signal of interest that kept him crossing the Skyway Bridge. This summer, they celebrated their third wedding anniversary. They swim, walk, dance, take trips and, yes, roller skate.

"My darling husband prepares breakfast daily and does so many thoughtful things like bringing me flowers often," Shirley says. "And the great sex is the frosting on the cake. Loving and being loved is the greatest gift in this life."

Researchers agree. People who infuse their lives with intimacy, sex and love live longer and stay healthier.

"It's what makes us happy and leads to healing," says Dr. Daniel Stein, Tampa gynecologist and sex guru. "If a new drug had the same impact, virtually every doctor in the country would be recommending it to their patients, and it would be malpractice not to prescribe it."

Time to enjoy sex

Intimacy makes no age distinctions. Youth's torrid cravings and moony-eyed romanticisms eventually yield to the deeper complexities of maturity. But the underlying feelings remain the same: Just about everyone wants closeness and touching.

Aging bodies and cultural messages sometimes throw up roadblocks, but initiative, experience and wisdom also can open doors.

Take sex.

Physiological changes in older bodies -- such as reduced blood flow to the penis and vaginal dryness -- can dampen the libido, Stein says. But several physical and emotional fixes can counteract that, such as hormone replacement therapy for both men and women, muscle exercises and a generally healthful lifestyle.

"If we can stop somebody from smoking, we can increase the penile blood flow 200 percent in two weeks," says Stein, whose Foundation for Intimacy treats sexual dysfunction in people of all ages.

Often, a change of medication can solve problems.

"Anti-depressants are the most common drug prescribed for women, with strong anti-sexual effects," Stein says. "In the limited time doctors spend with patients, doctors don't ask if your sex life is satisfactory."

Older people also must counter the drip, drip, drip of cultural cues that equate sexuality with youthful, thin, wrinkle-free bodies, says Marilyn Myerson, a professor of women's studies at the University of South Florida.

Birthday cards abound with sagging crones and hairy-eared geezers. Television and movies often portray old people as incompetent boobs or dirty lechers.

"The most important sex organ is our brain," Myerson says. "How we see ourselves and our partners and the extent to which we internalize cultural messages is going to affect our ability to enjoy sexuality."

Viagra may be a simplistic approach to rejuvenating a love life, she says, but it has produced one side benefit for everybody. Television ads are starting to show older people dancing, embracing and enjoying themselves as sensual beings.

She expects that trend to continue as aging baby boomers wield market clout.

Some aspects of growing older can enhance sensuality, Myerson says. Older people need not worry about pregnancy. They often can take advantage of time and flexibility. They may become more skilled and wise about appreciating themselves and their partners.

A 1999 survey by AARP indicates that as people age, their partners look better and better.

Fifty-nine percent of men in the 45-59 age range felt strongly that their partners were physically attractive. In the 75-and-older age group, 64 percent of men felt this way. Fifty-two percent of women in their 40s and 50s felt strongly attracted to their partners, whereas 57 percent of women 75 and over felt that way.

Clearwater resident Verle Felde, a former nurse who has buried three husbands, says intimacy improved with every marriage.

She loved her first husband, she says, but the pressures of raising a child and working their way up in the world sometimes strained their closeness. Sex was a learning experience. Her first husband died suddenly when Felde was 60.

Husband No. 2, a widower who lived in her condo complex, developed Alzheimer's disease after nine years and died two years later. Their relationship was comfortable, their sex life good, Velde says. But the love of her life -- Husband No. 3 -- didn't show up until she was 72.

Again, he was a widowed neighbor who was "beautiful in every way," she says. For nine years, they never uttered cross words and respected each other's need for occasional space, she says. If he wanted to read for hours, she didn't complain.

"We were very comfortable with each other," she says. "We enjoyed a wonderful closeness, cuddling, hand-holding, sleeping in each other's arms."

Sex with No. 3 was slower, quieter and deeper, Felde says. "It's more sensuous to take the time to enjoy loving. Intimacy is more perfect at this age."

Now at 84, she misses him terribly, she says. She's grateful for good health, an active life and friends. But if the right man happened by, she might give it another go.

Obstacles in the search

A 1999 survey by the National Council on Aging reported that half of Americans older than 60 have intercourse at least once a month, although men have it more frequently than women (61 percent versus 37 percent). That's because women live longer and lose their partners and because more older men have partners under 60 who aren't counted in the survey.

The people who weren't having intercourse often missed it. Four in 10 said they'd like a better sex life, the survey showed. The single biggest impediment was lack of partners, particularly for single, heterosexual women.

By the time people reach 85, women outnumber men 5-2, a ratio that understates the imbalance because men often hook up with younger partners and are unavailable to women of their own age.

When Helen Myers and her husband moved to Spring Hill 13 years ago, married couples occupied most of the houses on her street. As the neighborhood aged, however, the men started dying off. She became a widow two years ago.

Now, she figures, the street contains about two dozen women and two men, one of whom is sickly. She goes to church every Sunday, but most of the men are attached.

Myers, 71, says she's happy with her life but would like occasional male companionship -- not necessarily a romantic relationship, but at least someone to go to dinner with, someone to talk to.

"I miss being around men," she says. "I miss asking them things. But that doesn't happen. You just don't come in contact with them that often."

Come Tuesday, clumps of women will be dancing together at the Gulfport Senior Center, says coordinator Sarah Peel. That's because, for every man who attends the afternoon dances, three or four women are looking for partners.

Dancing is a powerful, sensuous tonic -- be it ballroom, jitterbug, line dancing or even the chicken dance, she says.

"People come in on walkers, and you think, good grief, surely they are going to watch. But just wait until the right beat begins, and they are dancing. It may not be the tango or the rhumba, but their feet are moving to the music."

Women who attract male partners usually involve themselves in numerous activities, from dancing to bingo to writers' clubs, and take the initiative to interact with men, Peel says.

"You have to be open. You have to be available," she says. "You can't just sit in your condo and moan and groan and complain."

Making advances can be difficult for women who were taught that ladies should act with reserve, not boldness, Peel says.

She recalls one woman who asked for advice because her 82-year-old boyfriend was pressuring her for sex, saying that he would lose it if he didn't use it.

What would my children think? the woman asked.

"I told her to do whatever you want to do. Did they ever worry about what Mama would think? It's time that Mama did what Mama wants to do."

Sometimes, finances complicate relationships. Children who worry about their inheritances may discourage their parents from entangling liaisons. If a widow's income depends on her dead husband's pension, remarrying could cost her a bundle. People on low, fixed incomes sometimes worry that a new love may cost them.

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Lionel LaBranche, a 77-year-old widower in Homosassa Springs, follows a healthful lifestyle, which includes lifting weights. His only complaint about being alone: Meeting women is difficult when money for dates is scarce.
"Some of those old suckers are looking for women with money," says Helen Myers. "You can't be too careful."

Twenty miles north of Myers, in Homosassa Springs, Lionel LaBranche lives frugally on Social Security after his wife died of cancer 10 years ago. At 77, he goes to church, walks every day, lifts weights and figures, "If I met the right person, I'd make the right woman happy."

But tight finances crimp his chances for romance, he says. He owns his home and pampers his 1992 Chevrolet Lumina, but he can't afford many dinners out for himself, much less for dates.

Most women "just don't want to go out with anyone; they just don't want to lose their benefits," LaBranche says. "Some of them are well off with big, beautiful homes, and they are happy to go out with the girls and play golf."

One culturally underappreciated source of sensuality is self-pleasure, says Myerson, the USF professor. It's always there for people without partners.

"People need to have more permission to masturbate, particularly people in their 60s and older," Myerson says. "For that generation, it's very much of a no-no."

If done without guilt, masturbation can enhance self-esteem and wellness for people who live alone, she says, and can even benefit people who have partners, as one piece of the sensual puzzle.

Intimacy isn't always sexual

The American Society on Aging recently devoted its quarterly journal, Generations, to intimacy and aging. While reiterating the benefits of sex, researchers noted that the nourishing effects of intimacy encompass a much broader constellation of behaviors and relationships.

People who are intimate share a deep caring and sense of commitment for each other. They often share the same values and think similar thoughts. They make themselves physically accessible to each other, whether in the heat of passion or a comforting hug.

Spring Hill residents Kenneth Karsten, 87, and his wife, Bee, 68, gave up intercourse several years ago after his aging body was buffeted by several chronic ailments. Their closeness stems from the care they have given each other during illness, from the "I love yous" they exchange daily, from the nights they spend next to each other and from their 4 p.m. popcorn dates with Angela Lansbury and Murder, She Wrote.

Karsten also treasures the fact that his wife accepts the psychic visions he has experienced all his life, including messages from dead people. Whenever she can't find something, she'll have him ask one of his "spirit guides" where she misplaced it.

A lot of women would pooh-pooh such a notion, Karsten says.

"But when you started out telling your wife (about the visions), and she says, "That's interesting, tell me more,' and she doesn't think you're nuts, that is intimacy."

As life progresses, adult siblings can become a powerful source of intimacy, psychologists Victoria Hilkevitch and Paula Avioli write in Generations.

Siblings share common histories and usually common values. They count on each other in crisis. Their parents are often dead or dying; their children and grandchildren are off leading hectic lives. That often leaves siblings as the strongest, most accessible, most reliable source of familial connection.

Envies and rivalries that might have distanced siblings during their youth tend to fade in old age.

As a group, people at every age have more siblings than spouses or sexual partners. Half of everyone over 85 still has at least one living sibling.

Sister-sister relationships tend to be the strongest, brother-brother the weakest.

In one study cited by the psychologists, the death of a close sibling damaged people's cognition, functioning and overall health more than the death of a spouse or close friend.

Dunedin resident Patricia Belic, 68, derives pleasure from caring for her two grandchildren during the day, along with painting and reading.

After a painful divorce, "Sensuality and romance are no longer on my life's menu," she says. "I'm not as self-centered as I was when I was younger, and it seems that as you get older, you see things from a higher hill."

Her closest friend is her sister, 65-year-old Palm Harbor resident Jeanne Blauvelt.

Both say they've grown closer in recent years as their parents became ill and died. Now, they see each other two or three times a week, maybe just for a trip to Home Depot or a garden shop. They talk on the phone just about every morning.

"It's more or less a kaffeeklatsch," Blauvelt says. "We talk about what's on the news, we try to solve the world's problems, we don't agree with a lot of the ways mothers are bringing up children, or if we are feeling down and out, we give each other support."

Good friends can also provide intimacy. Women, particularly, tend to form strong bonds with other women that can include affection and non-sexual touching.

Older gays and lesbians often experience familial and societal disapproval that can strain their relationships. They also are more likely than heterosexuals to live alone or without a life partner, writes John Blando, a professor of counseling at San Francisco State University.

But according to a study cited by Blando, gays and lesbians are more likely than heterosexuals to form strong networks of friends and to rely on them for nurturing and companionship as they age.

Experience can enhance sensuality

Whether they have a partner or live alone, older people often enjoy one ace in the hole: experience. If seasoned by insight, experience can evolve into wisdom.

Listen to how Largo resident Phyllis O'Bryan-Delimon, 62, describes sensuality.

"It doesn't just represent being sexy or flirting. All my senses are involved. Stroking my husband's arm, cupping his face in my hands . . . his soft touch on my back when he massages my shoulders or gently scratches my back.

"The sensuality of touch reaches out to many things and people. The softness of a rose petal, the hugs and kisses given and gotten from family . . . the feel of a cold stone or the fur on a cat, one being just as sensual as another. Even touching soft fabrics is sensual."

Three years ago, surgery took away her senses of smell and taste, but not her capacity for adjustment.

"I have found other ways to replace the satisfaction. The feel of foods in my mouth, the consistency, the crispness . . . I cannot smell a rose, but I can touch. I can take in its beauty.

"The sounds that raise my passions and awaken my sensuality are the sounds of the classics such as Mozart, the country-western love songs, the hits of the '60s and '70s that move your heart. The sounds of a waterfall, the chirping of birds, the stillness at dusk.

"Are my sensualities and passions different now than at 20 or 30 years of age? I think not. The difference lies in the fact that I think about them. . . . I have time to enjoy them, to take all the sense and feelings into the core of very being.

"Life itself is a passion."

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