"Have you ever looked up the word 'intercourse' in the dictionary?" Cliff said, gruffly.
He was an 87-year-old resident of Bayberry Care Center. I was a high school recreation volunteer.
"Well," he said, "I never had it."
As a 17-year-old, this candid confession was not uncommon -- among my angsty adolescent peers. We were a small clan of gawky, gabby girls who spoke in whispery speculation about what never was. There were only three or four of us by senior year, and we were relegated to the periphery of the social hierarchy and by natural extension, the cafeteria. But coming from an octogenarian, it was downright taboo.
I realized, though, that Cliff's reality wasn't so far off from mine. Outside of the high school halls and college campuses, senior centers are coming to be known as hotbeds of sexual activity. I would typically encounter just as many displays of lust during a four-hour shift at Bayberry as during a day of school.
"But Roger thinks I'm gorgeous," she'd exclaim. "Roger is also 39 and unemployed and lives at home with his mom who is younger than you," I'd reply.
Rates of sexually transmitted diseases nearly doubled among adults over fifty during the decade between 2000 and 2010, according to CDC data. In an age of Viagra and internet dating, when there are dating sites geared specifically to senior citizens (e.g. Silver Singles), such statistics don't really come as a surprise. (They even provided fodder for an episode of Parks and Recreation.)
Among adults over 50, 85 percent of men and 61 percent of women said that sex was important to their quality of life, according to a 2010 AARP survey. Caught up in our ageist culture, it took a very busy year at Bayberry before I became fully aware of that. Perhaps I was privy to an undue proportion of these ascending statistics -- or at least, talk of the yearning that underpinned them.
Sometimes the displays of affection were sweet. Mary recounted, with pride, many a girlhood night down at the lake with her multitude of beaus. And then proceeded to serenade the day room in a rousing rendition of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." Sometimes they were lascivious. I saw nurses being ceaselessly cat-called by supposedly innocuous old men, with winking grins and howls of "get over here, sweetheart."
Sometimes it was sad, like for poor Sofia with her dementia-addled brain. With barely any provocation she would wail, "Puttana, puttana!" -- Italian slang for "whore" -- at unsuspecting bystanders.
But no matter its form, the specter of the "it," the thing that Cliff and I never had, was so often looming.
Meanwhile it took until 2011 for Medicare to cover STI screening tests.
Age clearly has little impediment on sexual desire, and yet discussion of sex and the elderly often remains a cultural taboo. The subject is rarely broached in both conversational and medical contexts, even by seniors themselves. According an Age UK survey (a British charity dedicated to aiding senior citizens), out of a sample group of over 2,000 people over 65, 69 percent have never sought medical advice from professionals regarding their sexual health. And despite the growing STI rate among this demographic, almost half (46 percent) feel they don't need to, rising to 54 percent among just the women.
What's to account for the continued blind eyes turned to sexual health in the elderly? Of course generational and cultural differences come into play, but perhaps society's youth-centric and often dismissive attitudes factor in as well. An editor of Esquire recently noted with pride that they feature "older" women on the cover, citing 40-year-old Cameron Diaz as an example of their diversity. Meanwhile it took until 2011 for Medicare to cover STI screening tests.
When prolific romance novelist Jessica Blair was recently revealed to be an 89-year-old man, it shocked a lot of people -- but not me. We often reduce the elderly to caricatured clichés. Grandmas, in their cable cardigans and grey perms are adorable. Golfing grandpas drive their toy-like carts down the fairways. Little old ladies are just as diminutive as we say they are -- little and old. The cutesy facade we often fail to see beyond marks our inability to recognize the desire underneath. A lifetime of it, at that.