As Dr. Robert N. Butler makes clear in Chapter 2 of his book, The Longevity Prescription titled “Nurture Your Relationships,” we should not “underestimate the value of touching, hugging, and sharing...”
He is discussing the people he calls “elemental connections,” loved ones and intimate friends, (noting that he will discuss other kinds of close relationships later in the book).
“A loved one might be a spouse, one of your children, a sibling, a parent, or a grandparent. Intimate friends, a trusted coworker, and a neighbor might belong here too...”
“You must cherish them as they cherish you. They are the ones who give us reason to live.”
Study after study over many years show that strong emotional attachments are the best (although not only) predictors of health in old age. Acknowledging that while some people have a natural ability to make and maintain friendships, Butler realizes that others of us need to work at it, but that it is a skill that can be developed.
He gives a long list of ideas that can enhance friendship. My favorites are those that remind some of us, who enjoy the sound of our own voices a bit too much, to learn to listen better and give others a chance to speak. His suggestions for making new friends are familiar, but I was most interested in his first – something I had never articulated to myself:
“Decide what you desire in a friend...Among the likely attributes is trust. A priority may be a person who shares your sense of humor or likes to read to go to the movies. Good friends are curious and caring, patient, nonjudgmental, and do not take advantage...What you desire in a friend is probably very similar to what a potential friend will want to see in you.”
The one place I part company with Dr. Butler is this:
“As life's demands begin to lessen during the aging years, our need for others with whom to share our feelings, insights, and beliefs can increase.”
Maybe for some, but not me. God save me from the large number of people with whom I kept in regular touch during my working years. I called them all friends in those days (a pre-internet Facebook?), but they - however many late nights we spent in groups solving our personal, professional and all the world's problems after too much wine - were mostly acquaintances.
Even so, no one can disagree with Butler's bottom line in this section of the chapter on nurturing friendships: “How important are friends?” he asks. “Friendship is priceless.”
The focus of this chapter, however, is intimate friends and Butler devotes the majority of it to a discussion of elder sexuality which as far as I can tell is the last taboo in our sex-soaked culture. What little popular acknowledgment there is of sex in later years can be divided mostly into two categories: old people probably don't do it but if they do, “eew” (usually from young comedians) and embarrassingly salacious books (usually written by 60-plus women) on how to get as much as you did at age 25.
Dr. Butler is, instead, realistic:
“Sexuality is dynamic; it varies over time with age, health, relationship status, and other factors. That is all entirely normal. A gradual diminution in sexual interest and activity in the aging years is also common, but the notion that people of a certain age become asexual simply is not true.”
Butler's positive attitude about elder sexuality is nicely summed up in a story he tells about Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who, says Butler, “had it right”:
“Not only did he serve on the Court until age 90 (three cheers for longevity and the lively mind!), but Justice Holmes remained available to other stimuli, too. As Holmes once said upon watching a pretty girl walk by: 'Oh, to be eighty again.'”
In this chapter, there are excellent, straightforward sections on age-related sexual dysfunction for men and for women and what to do about it, including the all-important, talk to your physician.
“The passing of years can have an impact on your sex life. For men, the production of testosterone tends to fall and erectile difficulties to increase; for women the physiological changes that accompany menopause may produce a number of changes, ranging from vaginal dryness to diminished desire.
“For many people, however, these prove to be minor impediments and the practice of intimacy – physical and emotional connectedness – for many older people continues to be pleasurable, rewarding, and fulfilling.”
I can't leave this subject without telling you about Len, a neighbor on my New York City block. At this time, we had been friendly for 10 or 15 years. I had helped him get started with a computer and we often had long conversations sitting together on my front stoop on warm, summer evenings while his ancient dog rested at our feet.
As I was hurrying toward the corner on my way to work one morning in 1998, Len, who was about 85 at the time and had been widowed for many years, was just outside his door. I greeted him as I rushed past, but he called out for me to come back. “I've got some terrific news I just have to tell you, Ronni.”
“Yes, Len...” I said as I backtracked.
Clearly excited, he grabbed my arm and loud enough for anyone else on the block to hear too, he said, “Viagra works!”
He'd never told me before that he'd had a girlfriend for the past couple of years and I heard a little more than I needed to know about them that morning. But that doesn't mean I wasn't happy for him.
Butler describes young adult sex as “urgent and explosive...biological, instinctive, exciting and energetic.” It often leads to conception and is, he says, the first language of sex.
”As we age, however, we begin to understand as the young cannot that sex is not merely a matter of athleticism and productivity. Sexuality has a powerful emotional component; it is communicative as well as physical. It is later in life that we reach a deeper understanding of this 'second language' of sex.”
You might be interested in another book by Dr. Butler and his late wife, Myrna Lewis: Love and Sex After Sixty.
Your assignment for next week, my friends – if you are following along - is to read Chapter 3: Seek Essential Sleep.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Susan Gulliford: V-J Day: For Uncle Mel