"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.
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.
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.
The few times we do publicly acknowledge the sexual proclivities of the over sixty crowd, take for example, the entire seven season run of the Golden Girls, it's in the context of a joke. It takes a chuckle to get to the truth, though that doesn't make it any less revelatory.
Could it be that when we blatantly ignore and disregard an entire demographic as active sexual agents, they find themselves exempt from the larger conversation, be it medical, cultural or familial? I recognize this as overarching speculation, but my grandmother certainly did.
Upon my grandfather's death, my grandma Irene was left without a man for the first time since the age of thirteen. Now a widow after nearly five decades of marriage, she spun into a single panic. Our family urged her to fill her empty days, take up a new hobby, volunteer at the library, join a bingo club - anything to get her mind off the new-found void. In our eyes her romantic life was over. It was uncomfortable to think of her as anything more than an inextricable part of a whole, a package deal of family, of my family -- her and my grandfather in their matching cruise-wear, spending leisurely days as card game partners for life, hand-in-hand at the buffet line during their early bird Sunday dinners. She was a maternal presence, not a sexual one. We disregarded her desire, hence she disregarded our advice. But our relentless heeding only led her to the Internet.
Irene may have been 78, but she was as media-savvy as any member of the Millennial generation. She had seen it on a TV news program or read about it in a magazine -- everybody's doing it, she said. The "it" in this case was online dating. Soon she had a profile, or rather, multiple profiles. On sites with hopeful clichés for names like "Plenty Of Fish" or the aforementioned "Silver Singles." She was uploading stylish photos and clicking off preferences (non-smoker, male, loves travel and movies) with giddy aplomb. And within the hour, messages started rolling in.
When she flew up from Florida to visit my family for Thanksgiving, her first impulse after hugging us hello, was to rush to our computer to check her overflowing inbox. With an eyeroll and a sigh, we gradually accepted her foray into online dating. It was a distraction she welcomed. Who were we to fault her for it? But it might have been too late for her to accept our acceptance.
We tried to ward her away against scammers and cheaters. A vulnerable widow was prime prey for gold diggers and the rest of their sleazy ilk. One compliment was all it took to bowl her over. "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. Even when our advice was in her best interest, it was usually abandoned.
When she finally did meet someone, it was in a rare moment of self-forced socialization at the local senior center, and not the result of any online correspondence. It was Luigi Del Mar's lush silver locks that she was immediately attracted to. She always valued a full head of hair. Adorned with gold chains and a gruff guido accent, he wouldn't have looked out of place on an octogenarian version of The Jersey Shore. Lou exuded cocky machismo. He was a World War II veteran and a retired postal worker, as well as a recent widower following half a decade of marriage. Irene had met her match.
One of the first times I met Lou, he talked at length about his army days. He was stationed all over Asia and spent ample time in India. "It was there that I was introduced to the Kama Sutra," he said. My mind raced back to that conversation with Cliff nearly a decade ago. We were discussing the dictionary all over again.
"Oh really," I said. "Tell me more."