Frisky business as usual in later life

The new Netflix sitcom ‘Grace and Frankie’ brings a comic eye to the fact that older women still have the same hopes and sexual desires as their younger selves, writes Margaret Jennings.          

Franike brandishes a blister pack of condoms at her friend who is preparing to go out on a date, after a month of “pinching and fingering” men on her phone, via an internet dating site.

It might seem like a perfectly reasonable exchange between two pals, except Grace and Frankie are 70-year-olds, who have both been married for 40 years and are now newly single.

“Why do I need condoms anyway? I’m not exactly a pregnancy risk!” says Grace, to which Frankie responds: “With all the new penis drugs out there, old people are doing it like rabbits and STDs are on the rise.”

The new Netflix American sitcom featuring Jane Fonda as the uptight figure-conscious Grace and Lily Tomlin as the hippy-dippy Frankie, brings a comic eye to the fact that older women still have the same hopes and preoccupations as their younger selves.

It does not shy away from the challenges that post-menopausal women face, such as “sagging breasts and chin hairs” and the very real fear of dating someone new after decades. But the two actresses channel ageing issues with such pizzazz that the message to older — and younger — women, is a self- empowering one; life is still worth embracing as the decades roll on.

Unspoken issues are out in the open, such as the very funny episode featuring Frankie making pots of organic yam vaginal lubricant, much to the disgust of Grace’s 30-something daughter Brianna, who runs a beauty company.

This poses the opportunity for Grace to reveal to Brianna that “84% of post menopausal women find sex painful” and vaginal lubes are full of “parabens, glycerine and silicone”. Then she delivers the hilarious line: “This stuff is all natural — truly organic — I’m talking from farm to vagina”, before she highlights the problem that women are “putting terrible chemicals in their bodies and nobody is talking about it”.

Brianna responds: “No mom, the problem is YOU’RE talking about it,” before she exits, dog nuzzled in arms, telling it “I’m going to leave these filthy ladies be.”

Brianna’s reaction underlines what many younger people believe — sex stops as you get older and it’s “dirty” to even contemplate. Not surprising — we are taught to think of older people as non-sexual, says Irish clinical sexologist, Emily Smith Power. “The irony is that everyone is going to get older, if they are lucky, and they are going to be treated that way by the younger generation themselves unless we start teaching them another way to view older people and their sexuality.”

Power Smith, who runs a private practice and gives seminars and workshops, says that lack of education — including not having a good enough sexual experience — is behind a lot of beliefs we hold around the issue.“I have yet to meet a person of any gender who has enjoyed great sex and who is happy to just let it slide away with age,” she says. “Sex is very important to people who like it — no matter what age they are — and they will usually want to fight societal norms and expectations and will be very creative in how they develop their sexual lives, right up to their 80s and beyond.”

But many people are having unsatisfying sex and aren’t able to talk about it, she says. “So when the menopause hits, those who weren’t enjoying sex to begin with, have the perfect excuse to stop. Not craving poor sex isn’t low desire — its common sense.”

Women who stop having unsatisfying sex, without talking about it, actively feed into the myth that it’s normal and natural for all women to “lose their mojo”, says the sexologist.

That’s not denying there are challenges. In keeping with the Grace and Frankie episode, Power Smith stresses the importance of lubrication, saying women might need to take 30-40 minutes “to really get warmed up”, since their slower arousal patterns to men becomes more obvious as they get older.

Another challenge is men’s erections being less reliable with age, she says.

“But an erect penis is not as important to a great sexual experience as we’ve been lead to believe. Men can orgasm without an erection, but because there is so much focus on the erection, the subtleties of male sexuality are lost.”

“Slow down and talk”, she says. “Find out what you both really enjoy and want. It changes throughout our lives and this is a conversation all couples need to have throughout their lifespans.

“Be willing to learn and be curious and playful. Age is a factor in how we experience ourselves and others sexually, but it in no way has to mean the demise of our sexual selves.”

There’s a lesson there for Brianna in Grace and Frankie.

— — Read for tips on the menopause by Aisling Grimley

Bright future

Seven Strategies for Positive Aging, Robert D Hill, €16.09

Frisky business as usual in later life

Staying positive can be a challenge — not to mention as the ageing process hits home. There are numerous self-help books on this subject for all ages but this one is specifically geared towards those facing the latter decades of life.

The seven strategies of the title are organised into seven chapters, whose themes are: how to find meaning, keep learning, discover sources of wisdom, strengthen relationships, give and accept help, forgive yourself and others, and develop a grateful attitude.

There are practical exercises and information to support these strategies towards wellbeing and healthy ageing. The author is a US-based psychologist, professor and researcher in geriatric care who specialises in fostering a positive mindset.

Mediterranean diets in older age

Topping up your Mediterranean diet with more oils and nuts could add extra benefit for the ageing brain, a new study suggests.

Spanish researchers collected data over six years on participants whose average age was 67, who were at high risk of heart disease but who had no issues with memory.

While some were put on a low-fat diet, others were requested to add a litre of extra virgin olive oil per week to their Mediterranean diet, or to supplement the diet with 30 grams of walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. The participants followed the diets for four years, while they underwent memory, attention and thinking tests. In both groups following the Mediterranean diet, researchers saw improved memory and thinking compared to the group on the low-fat diet, say searchers, in the online journal, JAMA Internal Medical.

Quality over calories

The quality of the food we eat, rather than the calorie count, is more important for keeping our waistlines trim as we age, claims a US study.

While many people focus on calories, it is the quality of the protein and carbs that matters most, says researcher Dariush Mozaffarian, of Tufts University and the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston.

While men and women who ate lots of nuts, peanut butter, fish and yoghurt tended to lose weight, other foods seen as ‘unhealthy’, like full-fat cheese and whole milk, did not seem to contribute to weight gain, unless they were accompanied by refined or starchy carbs, or sugary drinks. The findings are online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.


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