By Dr. Ken Druck
Many of our aging parents are now single. Rendered so by death or divorce, they’re back in “the game,” dating and having relationships. While we may recoil at the thought of our parents having sex, especially as they’ve gotten older, the desire for intimacy is still there.
Whether or not we choose to take up adult-to-adult conversations with our aging parents about sensitive subjects is up to us. Some of us still see our parents as looming authority figures and are not comfortable talking about any aspect of their personal lives, including their health, finances or social lives.
Others have turned the page on a time when our parents were uncontested authorities and they were a child. They have learned to see their parents as human and vulnerable. Not only have they grown comfortable talking to their parents about personal matters, they see it as their responsibility to do so as loving sons and daughters and as caregivers.
Whether or not to have “the talk” with your aging parents about anything , including sex, depends on several things. Ask yourself, “Are my parents comfortable when it comes to talking about their social lives and their sexuality? Or is this likely to be something that is beyond their willingness and ability? Have I cultivated a line of communication, openness, and trust with my parents about their personal lives that would allow us to discuss sensitive, private matters that would be of great benefit and assurance to them? Or is it just too creepy for me to talk openly to my mom or dad about their sex life?”
A client of mine named Sally struggled with these questions telling me, “Much as I don’t want to think about it, my mom is dating. It’s been five years since my Dad died, and it’s good that she’s seeing Steve. I want her to have male companionship, but I’m not sure I feel comfortable talking to her about it. Reading about the dramatic increase in STDs for seniors, I’ve thought about having ‘the talk’ with her, like I’ve done with my kids but cautioning my mother about making smart choices feels too weird.”
Another client of mine named Larry found himself in a situation where talking about his dad’s social life and sexuality was unavoidable. As Larry told me, “Dropping off my kids this morning, I made a surprise visit to my dad’s retirement community to see if he would want to go out for breakfast. Getting no response after knocking on his door yet hearing voices inside, I became a little concerned, but when he opened the door and an older woman wished me ‘Happy New Year’ as she left, I discovered that Dad had a friend with benefits at his retirement community. The surprise was on me.”
And finally, there’s my colleague Elliot, whose 63-year-old father came out of the closet and introduced him to his partner, Sam, at a dinner last year. Elliot has spent the past year processing his father’s new lifestyle and getting to know Sam, who turns out to be a terrific person.
The great challenge of being the adult child of aging parents is learning to see and embrace them as human. Beginning to see them less as “parents” and more as people with strengths and weaknesses, flaws and imperfections, like everybody else, allows us to accept that they have natural needs, desires, and preferences. The decision to talk openly with our aging parents or grandparents, and to do so with courageous and caring hearts, is one that makes us even better sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters.
Freeing ourselves of childhood images, social norms, judgments, shame, and inhibitions that hold us back from accepting our parents, and giving them permission to express themselves, including their sexuality, allows a much-needed adult-to-adult relationship to form as we (and they) get older. Having an adult relationship with our parents allows all of us to communicate openly about just about everything that’s important.
In addition to our psychological discomfort with our parents still being sexual, or getting older, there are a myriad of family matters that we can and must talk about. This might include Dad bringing his considerably younger girlfriend to a family gathering; Mom getting caught sneaking a guy into her room at the retirement village where she lives; and Dad joking about sex inappropriately in front of our friends, spouses, or grandkids.
Not all adult children and aging parents are able or willing to communicate openly and have “the talk” about sex. Nor does everybody need to. Those who can, and choose to do so, are likely to benefit in a variety of ways. Aging parents who may be naïve and inexperienced, might learn a great deal from talking with their well-informed/educated adult children about some aspects of their sex lives. They may receive help and support for changes they’ve experienced or are considering. Summoning the love, courage, and confidence to open the doors of communication about sex can open, lighten, and free ours and their hearts and strengthen the fabric of our relationships.