Older women do not automatically go off sex

Elizabeth Shepherd.jpg

Never underestimate yourselves. Even if the outside of face and body has changed over the years, the glow of wanting to make an intimate connection still shines through

Elizabeth Shepherd, actress and Shakespearean theatrical coach in New York

I read about Elizabeth Shepherd in the New York Times, where the 82 year old British born actress stood out for an astoundingly frank conversation about her sex life. Still engaged in acting, she is part of an anti-ageism program created by doctor Ronald Adelman, co-chief of geriatrics at Weill Cornell Medical School. Every year, future doctors have a chance to see a play illustrating the humane way for doctor to treat an older patient and to meet with a group of very active seniors that lead them beyond the stereotypes and invite them to explore the multifaceted reality of older adulthood.

«I consider myself an activist and I was excited to have a chance to use my acting skills to illustrate and widen the knowledge about the years after maturity», she explained on the phone. It took Elizabeth no time, in fact, to accept my invitation to shed a light on the sex life of older adults, a topic that is mocked at best and silenced the rest of the time.

Talking about aging and love, what have you discovered that you didn’t expect past the age of 50?

I have discovered that it is not necessarily dependent on how much attention is coming your way as far as relationships are involved - it depends on how open you still are to think of yourself as a sexual being - whether you are actually in relationship or not. 

I have also often found that I am so busy with other things in my life - I am still a working actor and teach Shakespeare to acting students on a regular basis - that I do not think about my love life at all! Although I have a relationship with a 65 year old man who is now in Afghanistan, I am used to being on my own anyway.

Do you think that your profession and the fact that you are still in business had a positive impact on the health of your sex life?

Yes, definitely, the fact I am still full of energies and engaged with the world played a part. But, as above, I am often preoccupied with all sorts of other things in my life so that my sex life is not all-important.

We grow up and live in a culture that celebrates youthfulness and equals it with sexy. At the same time, there’s a lack of positive visual references for older women. How can we create a mental space to be sexually/romantically involved when we age despite the fact that we are negatively conditioned on the subject? 

Self-esteem very important. My profession is notoriously ageist about women - and the beauty of desirable older age is not celebrated and appreciated as in French cinema, if you think about Catherine Deneuve. It is being talked about and certain celebrity stars are pushing this envelope - writers, women and men, writing scripts about older lovers, active older marrieds too. 

Even without an ongoing active sex life, one can feel sexy and therefore look sexy nevertheless. We women talk about it among ourselves - we need to get men involved in talking about it among themselves.

In your interview in The New York Times, you talked about a parenthesis of same-sex relationship after the age of 50. Would you say that when we pass the age of 50 we tend to be more self-confident, more curious, more free to experiment?

In some cases, sure. Especially if not having settled for something anyway. Although in the end I didn’t choose to do so, I have known some women who chose a same-sex partnership in later life as infinitely more satisfactory for them. But nowadays the young women are experimenting with lesbian choice, or queer or some other gender choice very freely.  That was not so when I was their age!

Media (think about movies) tend to desexualize older adults or mock them for their interest in sex, but we know that sex is as good as you make it. What myths should women debunk in order to welcome sex after the age of 50 and counting?

The myth that a older woman automatically goes off sex anyway and that an older woman is no longer “fuckable”. The reason I was so outspoken with the medical students is that, in an ageist medical profession, traditionally the question about sex-life is either not even asked of an older patient, or asked with the assumption that “Oh no” will be the answer. Our program through the Weill Cornell Medical School is one answer - and we would like to do it to a wider audience. The entertainment profession needs education too and is slowly getting it.

How does falling in love change with time?

I can say that the expectations become more realistic!

In your experience, how does love/sex evolve from the 40s to the 50s, from the 50s to the 60s and beyond?  

I think it is difficult, impossible, to generalize. I do think that an older woman and an older man today falling in love both have a sense from the old days of romance, courtship, the tenderness of all that rather than “immediately up against the wall” of the hook-up generation.

Do you think that, a part from social conditioning, we also create our own obstacles for a healthy sex life when we identify intercourse as the only way to be sexual? 

Absolutely - intercourse as the only form of sexual expression is damagingly limiting and not at all true! There are various practical facts about the older human body which need to be taken compassionately and humorously into account. 

Even with or without Viagra, a man is not as phallically potent as once was - a woman after menopause needs to keep her vagina taken care of with lubricant and maybe a dilator. But there are always kisses, and other potent sexy parts to create ardent desire - and orgasm by hands or mouth or vibrators or whatever can still be a wonderful shared experience. 

You’re still an very attractive woman, how do you manage yourself practically?

I pay attention to the way I look, but I’m not obsessed. A lot has to do with the right attitude towards aging. I have never had a face lift nor used botox. As an actress, I need to be able to use my face to display the widest range of emotions possible. That’s why the result is a properly lived in face. With surgery, one doesn’t get what life does to a face. 

Could we also say that the opposite is true? Through your pictures, it looks like as if the display of emotions worked like a gym for your face. Does it mean that, instead of standing on the shore, we should dive into the good and bad that the life offers?

I think that this is exactly what life expects from us.

What do you do to cultivate yourself?

I keep very active doing the things I love, like acting and teaching. With 46 students, teaching requires all I have to offer. I do not need to take any job to survive and I’m self sufficient. But for the women of my generation this might not always be the case as they have to adapt to their husband’s life. I prefer to have a starring role, rather than being a supporter in a man’s life.

I am also writing a book about my father, Rev. Vincent Shepherd. He was a missionary in Burma where he worked with leprosy patients, and in 1945 he contracted leprosy himself.  He accepted that God had chosen him to bear witness from inside this dreaded disease. He was cured, but spoke eloquently about the need to also cure the shaming stigma which still clings to being called a “leper”.

What you wished you’d been told and therefore would like to tell to other women about sex/love and aging?

I would tell other women never to underestimate themselves! Even if the outside of face and body has changed over the years - the glow of wanting to make an intimate connection still shines through.