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Intimacy Through The Ages: How Getting Older Shifts Dating And Relationships

An older couple holds hands.
Aging and intimacy are not incompatible. Relationships evolve with time just as bodies do.

The myths and realities of aging have created an industry rich with people offering a fix to stop or slow down the inevitable. Inevitably, the body changes and so too do relationships. On this episode of the series “Embodied: Sex, Relationships and Your Health,” The State of Things guest host Anita Rao explores the impact aging has on intimacy, and offers a decade by decade look at shifts in bodies, relationships and attitudes.  
Omisade Burney-Scott is a woman currently negotiating menopause. Her 50-plus years have made her self-aware, but the changes in her physical body and emotional state have also made her self-conscious. Burney-Scott recognized there were not enough African American women sharing their stories of menopause, so she created the podcast, “Black Girls’ Guide to Surviving Menopause.” She shares her stories of how “the change” is changing her. Dr. Karen Clark is a Chapel Hill-based obstetrician-gynecologist and a North American Menopause Society Certified Menopause Practitioner. She breaks down what menopause is and debunks the myths about estrogen therapy.

Ellen Ashley found herself newly divorced at 60. She spent years holding on to a marriage that had lost its spark out of fear that there was nothing better out there and no one would want a women of her age. Ashley joins the show to talk about online dating and the 35  internet dates that led her to a new man. For J.R. Dreyer and Jonathon Cutler their interest was strictly sexual until their chemistry turned into an 18-year relationship and recent marriage. Dryer and Cutler share the evolution of their relationship and the power of supportive parents.

Acclaimed sociologist and sexologist Pepper Schwartz gives an overview of sexuality as we age. Plus, Linda Waite has been studying the behavior of older couples since 2005. She shares her research and discoveries about intimacy as people age. Waite is the Lucy Flower Professor in urban sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago.

Interview Highlights

Burney-Scott on puberty vs menopause: 

I feel like this is a second puberty. I remember all the anticipation when I was 12 to getting my first cycle, to having enough breasts to actually wear a bra. It was so much. There were all kinds of conversations. Everybody was constantly talking to you: This is what you should prepare for. This is so exciting. Are you ready? … When I started in the perimenopausal phase of life, no one was having conversations with me. 

Burney-Scott on emotions during menopause: 

I’m also experiencing anger. And anger is not something that I feel I can be honest about experiencing, especially given the stereotypes and tropes about angry black women. It’s very hard for me to negotiate publicly when I feel angry, so I need safe and sacred spaces where I can express that anger and not feel judged.

Dr. Clark on some of her approaches to treating menopause:

I always start with traditional Chinese medicine, herbs and acupuncture. The herbs and the acupuncture together work very well. And I have several traditional Chinese medicine practitioners that I refer patients to.

Dr. Clark on misinformation about estrogen therapy: 

The Women’s Health Initiative Study was reported in 2002. The study was halted early because of an increased finding of breast cancer … So all of a sudden physicians started taking their patients off of hormone therapy … [Then later there was] reanalysis of subsegments of the Women’s Health Initiative Study. Subgroup analysis revealed that starting hormone therapy in the proper window of time, which extends about 10 years after the final menstrual period, [did not increase the risk of breast cancer.] Those women had a reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, osteoporosis, colon cancer and maybe even Alzheimer's disease.  

Ashley on dating after 25 years of marriage:

When you are coming out of a marriage where there was very little intimacy, I didn’t feel beautiful or desirable anymore. And so dating was scary for so many reasons … The good news is I had girlfriends who were single and had been dating a long time, and they were telling me about all the dating sites and new ways to meet people … I was on Match and I tried Tinder and tried Ok Cupid ... It’s been a great experience for me the last year and nine months that I’ve been dating … [Through online dating] I met about 35 people face-to-face. That’s after I had screened them online ... There were a lot of one [time] dates. 

Pepper Schwartz on aging and intimacy overall:  

The biggest cultural myth is that it’s not acceptable. It's not exciting. It doesn’t work well as you age. And somehow you should pack it up at age 60 and concentrate on being somebody’s grandmother or somebody’s knitting partner.   

Cutler on the 15-year age difference in his relationship: 

I didn’t think about the age difference very much. I thought J.R. was exciting, thoughtful and I liked his persona. I just found him to be a young spirit. I was less concerned with the age issue when we met. I guess as we’re getting older it is more of an issue because he’s 72 and I’m 57. But initially, it was not a concern of mine. 

Waite on maintaining social relationships as we age: 

With age, you lose people around you or they change. They move away. They become too sick to do the things you used to do, or they die. What we see in the National Social Life Aging Project is that people seem to use a lot of agency to deal with these social challenges. When we observed that people lost someone in their social network … On average they added new people in and even ended up with networks that were a little bit bigger.   

Waite on sex in later years: 

We look at people from their mid-50s to the mid-80s ... Women who remain sexually active through their mid-80s don’t report any more problems with sexuality like lubrication or lack of desire than women like them in their 50s. 

Pepper Schwartz on how to approach aging:

Be no less ambitious about your life from 50 on than you were ‘til you reached 50. And I mean ambitious in all ways — emotionally, in adventure and in accomplishment and in friendship.  

Dana is an award-winning producer who began as a personality at Rock 92. Once she started creating content for morning shows, she developed a love for producing. Dana has written and produced for local and syndicated commercial radio for over a decade. WUNC is her debut into public radio and she’s excited to tell deeper, richer stories.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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