Intimacy in later life
Most of us know relationships are ever-changing and not always easy. Here, Joy Sinclair, Ageing Well Consultant, shares advice on maintaining intimacy in your later years.
When you’ve been together for decades you know there are ups and downs along the way, and that you learn from these challenges and come out the other side with a better understanding of each other. And no matter your age, relationships are always a work in progress.
What can affect a relationship?
While some people thrive on routine, others can feel trapped and resentful, so if the latter is true, try to remember what attracted you to your partner in the first place.
Lack of communication
Most of us forget how essential it is to stay verbally in touch with one another. Talking about difficult issues if put off for too long, become more difficult to tackle and resolve.
Appreciating that people can change over time helps to keep things in perspective.
You may have shared common interests and hobbies which brought you together in the first place. After SCI such interests may prove difficult to continue. It’s important that each partner enjoys their own special interests, but shared activities shouldn’t be abandoned – they may just require some negotiation to keep both parties happy.
Loss of libido
Libido can be affected by a variety of factors in later life, especially if your health is failing. (Editor’s note: see P xx for more advice on this.) Pain, particularly caused by chronic conditions such as arthritis and chronic fatigue are common risk factors, as are complications with your normal bladder and bowel management. Mental health issues such as depression and some medications can affect libido, as can the menopause in women.
In some relationships following SCI, partners may perform a dual role as both lover and carer. This is not the ideal situation for some couples and both partners need to be quite clear on how the transition from one role to the other is achieved and how it is to be sustained.
This brings its own challenges, as partners are often not used to being with each other 24 hours a day. You may have had grand plans for your retirement which are no longer possible, this may affect you or even cause resentment in your partner.
Falling in love, planning ahead
Falling in love with your carer/PA is not unusual, especially among SCI people. When you are spending many hours with someone, especially if that person is performing very personal tasks, it can be a natural transition. These relationships are no different to any other relationship and can achieve long-lasting happiness or may end due to a variety of reasons.
Planning ahead is important and it’s always a good idea to have something to look forward to, no matter how small. It could involve visiting distant friends and family. There’s no doubt that spending time with grandchildren brings you closer together and is hugely pleasurable.
Regularly putting aside time to do things without each other is also important, while accepting that you don’t always enjoy the same activities. Meeting friends for coffee, a beer or a trip to the cinema can be very rewarding. Respecting each other’s space and needs becomes an integral part of surviving the later years.
Acknowledging and understanding each other, enjoying each other’s company and sharing an emotional closeness, which has developed over many years together, can all give greater satisfaction than physical or sexual activity.
If you are injured later in life
When you sustain an SCI later in life, you may have enjoyed many years in a sexually fulfilling relationship with your partner. This can all change very suddenly, leaving you wondering how you can re-establish the physical side of your lives. It’s natural to feel bewildered and awkward. It’s important to seek professional help if you are not coping with life after SCI.
We often forget how our sexual journeys started as a couple. Try getting back to basics; kissing, touching, eye contact, remembering your partner’s erogenous zones, hugging (even hugging releases ‘feel good’ hormones). Even little things, such as making an effort with your appearance, are often appreciated. Trying something different, such as massage, can be rewarding for both people.
Going into a nursing home
Maintaining a physical relationship with your partner will prove challenging in this environment. You may feel awkward about raising the subject of intimacy and privacy with members of staff, but we all have a right to expect a degree of privacy.
Nursing home staff may equally feel unprepared about how to handle issues of sexuality and requests for privacy. Some nursing homes provide holiday accommodation where a partner can stay for a limited period, while permanent accommodation for couples may also be an option.
And it’s not just couples for whom sexuality is important. If you’re single, it can be difficult to meet someone for friendship or intimacy, especially if you are unable to leave the premises unaccompanied. You may find using an on-line dating site is a good option.
The pandemic has certainly taught us many lessons some of which have sadly been extremely harsh. It’s also brought to the fore some words and phrases designed to help us survive during unprecedented times. These may well become vital mantras for the future; reflection, gratitude, being kind to each other and laughing.
The SCI Powder Room on Facebook. This is a female-only, private group covering personal, sensitive and female-related topics.
Sex and the Spine – easily accessible and trusted resources on sexual well-being from professional experts.
Spokz – Online shop offering products aimed at enhancing sexual wellbeing for disabled people
Sexual Health and Disability Alliance (SHADA) are involved in the positive promotion of sex for disabled people. This link provides a list of numerous sex-related resources
If you would like to discuss any of the issues mentioned above with someone who has lived experience of SCI visit our support page to find the contact for your area. Alternatively you can ring our support line on 0800 980 0501 or request a call from one of our SCI specialist nurses.