April Lewis makes no bones about the fact that for her, sex is “fun, fun, fun.” For over four years, the 66-year-old has been in a new – and passionate – relationship with a partner who is six years her senior.
“Many women believe that because they are not as youthful as they once were, they are no longer as desirable. But with age also comes a certain liberty,” says Lewis, a former health care professional and outspoken member of CARP, Canada’s leading advocacy association for older Canadians. “We can be more honest about what we want from an intimate relationship – and that honesty can allow us to connect very deeply with another human being.”
The connection – and attraction – to a partner are key elements for enjoying intimacy, agrees Dr. Rosemary Basson, clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and director of the University of British Columbia Sexual Medicine Program.
“A woman’s ability to experience pleasure doesn’t go away with age, provided there isn’t a neurological condition that is interfering,” says Dr. Basson. “Women mostly stop being sexual when they don’t have a sexually functional partner to whom they feel close.”
Research from an Australian study that followed 40,000 women for nine years before, during and after menopause found that feelings for one’s partner and mood are the two main determinants for achieving successful intimacy, regardless of the women’s age, says Dr. Basson. “When we have negative feelings for our partner or experience a negative mood – for example, mild or even severe symptoms of depression – this interferes with our sexual enjoyment.”
Menopause, however, can cause a number of disruptions affecting our sexual appetite, says Dr. Basson. The most common – related to women’s reduced estrogen levels – is dryness of the vagina, which, in turn, can make vaginal penetration uncomfortable or even painful. “This is an issue for a sizable proportion of women,” she says. “The good news is that it is treatable with moisturizers and lubricants.”
While vaginal moisturizers help with the ongoing symptoms of dryness – and may be applied on a regular basis – lubricants are specifically used at the time of sexual activity to reduce discomfort or pain.
“Many women find over-the-counter moisturizers and lubricants satisfactory,” says Dr. Basson. She adds that if pain still persists, they should be assessed by their health professional as they may require a topical prescription or other treatments.
“But menopause can also cause insomnia and mood changes, which can include irritability, depression and mood swings, all of which can impact interest in being sexual and therefore indirectly interfere with sexual relations,” says Dr. Basson. To address these or other disruptive menopausal symptoms, women should seek the advice of their physician.
Large surveys suggest that close to 50 per cent of North American women find sexual life to be an important or very important part of their quality of life. “Yet [older] women encountering issues often give up sex, thinking it’s just an age thing. So it can be useful to know there is help,” says Dr. Basson. “Sexual pleasure does not have an expiry date.”
For Lewis, “sex after 60 has been satisfying, sensational and sacrosanct,” she says. Openly sharing her attitude towards aging and intimacy in newspaper articles, blog posts and interviews, Lewis recently compiled a book titled Lovingly Arrogant: From Chaos to Contentment.
“It’s ironic that when I wrote that book, I wasn’t dating,” says Lewis. “My marriage had ended and most of the material was based purely on research. Then I met my current partner and, on one of our earlier dates, we made love three times.”
Lewis laughs that while this hasn’t turned into a daily routine – the couple’s passion hasn’t abated. “We’ve been in a faithful relationship ever since,” she says. “We’re having sex, and we’re having a great time.”
Moisturizer or lubricant?
Women looking for over-the-counter products to relieve menopause-related vaginal dryness may wonder about the differences between moisturizers and lubricants – and which would better serve their needs.
Moisturizers. By addressing vaginal dryness, moisturizers reduce the painful friction that can occur during sex. Since moisturizers are formulated to maintain vaginal moisture and pH, they get absorbed into the skin. Unlike lubricants, moisturizers can be applied regularly, not just before sex, with their effects lasting up to three days. This makes them particularly useful for women who experience symptoms of vaginal dryness, including irritation and burning, on a regular basis.
Lubricants. Lubricants come in liquid or gel form and are applied to the vagina and vulva (or the partner’s penis) right before sex and provide immediate relief from vaginal dryness (and related pain) during sex. This makes them useful for women who are primarily lookingto relieve symptoms of vaginal dryness related to intercourse.
Both. Women who regularly use moisturizers can still apply a lubricant as needed before sex, if they seek additional lubrication and comfort.
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