Sexual bereavement: The grief no one talks about


At 86, Sandhya* has a pretty full life. She is still mobile, active in her community, and keeps in regular touch with her children and their families who live abroad. But as the day draws to a close and she retires to her three-bedroom apartment, she craves for something that she cannot talk about — the comfort of a loving touch and the desire to be desired.

“I had a love marriage when I was 26. My husband is no more, my children are away and I am lonely,” she says, before admitting shyly that she is ‘meeting three men’. “I can’t think of getting married as people would laugh at me. But I enjoy the bond we share.”

When an elderly person loses his/her spouse, family and friends are quick to rally around. But no one really addresses what is known as ‘sexual bereavement’ — or grief associated with losing sexual intimacy with a long-term partner.

In India, sex is a taboo topic, especially if you’re a geriatric. “When the person is old and has grandchildren who are in their teens or married, then it becomes shameful that they are having such thoughts and desires,” says Magdalene Jeyarathnam, director, East West Centre for Counselling and Training, Chennai.

Sexologist Dr Narayana Reddy feels older folk are not hesitant about talking, there’s just nobody to listen. “The perception is that if a person is past 55 or 60, he/she becomes asexual,” he says. “I did a study of patients aged 50 to 90 in 2003-04. It found that men and women continue to be sexually active, though the frequency becomes less,” adds Dr Reddy.

Sexual intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to be intercourse, points out Jeyarathnam. “As couples age, it can be just touching, fondling or even cuddling every night in bed. We think they don’t need it but it has an impact on psychological health.” While families often bring in elderly people who are depressed, she says once the topic is broached, seniors open up. “They admit feeling bad they don’t have anybody to even touch them anymore,” she says.

That’s why, when Natubhai Patel had a providential escape in the 2001 Gujarat quake, he decided to devote the rest of his life to helping senior citizens who had lost their spouses find new life partners. Patel founded the NGO Vina Mulya Amulya Seva and made headlines when he hosted the ‘Senior Citizens Live-In Relationships Sammelan’ in Ahmedabad for people above 50. “I now have the biodatas of 5,000 people aged 50 to 85 from all over India,” he says, adding that he has conducted 44 swayamvars. “Since we do matchmaking for the elderly, we have to ask both of them if they are interested in having sex with their partner. The men are open in saying they have physical needs though they may tell their families that they need a companion,” says Patel.
Not everyone is understanding. Rajat*, 74, says he finds it difficult to talk to his son about his physical needs. “I tried bringing up the topic with my doctor but he brushed it aside.”
Geriatrician Dr VS Natarajan feels that sexual bereavement is not really a major issue in the Indian context. “When they lose their partner, women will manage, by concentrating on the family but men may suffer from depression when they feel lonely,” he says.

Dr Reddy says many patients want to discuss their feelings with a doctor but are often asked to “worry instead about their BP or turn to spirituality.” Some guilt-ridden patients even ask for medication to kill their sexual desire. “We need to give them room to grieve sexual bereavement, and also tell them not to feel bad that they have desires,” he says.

(*Names changed to protect privacy)

Courtesy: Priya Menon, The Times of India