Poly and Aging
You're older than you'd ever been
and now you're even older
and now you're even older
and now you're even older....
And now you're older still.
—They Might Be Giants
But that doesn't mean no sex, not always even less sex, as you age. People do tend to slow down, and many quit, by their 50s or 60s. However, the 2012 Loving More survey of more than 4,000 self-identified poly people found that they have substantially more sex in their later years than the average American, and that they are both happier and healthier than average in old age possibly because of this.
At 80, longtime polyactivist and benefactor Ken Haslam leads classes on how aging affects sexuality and poly relationships, and how people can adapt to these changes. This week he talks about things that we're all going to want to know about someday, on Cunning Minx's Polyamory Weekly podcast Episode 427: Is There Poly Over 70?
From her condensed transcript of the first minutes:
Ken, tell us who you are.
Ken Haslam with Liana Zhou, Special Collections
Librarian at the Kinsey Institute Library in Indiana.
I’m an 80-year-old failing polyamorist settling down into a more conventional lifestyle in a retirement community. I was a poly activist for about 15 years and ran about the country lecturing and ultimately set up the Kenneth R. Haslam Polyamory Collection at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University about six or eight years ago.
Didn’t you run the Poly Geezers list?
I am a founding member, along with another fellow, who is now dead. That’s one of the problems of getting old — sometimes you die. The Poly Geezers list died a natural death. [Not quite –Ed.] Old polys get it [about how to manage poly relationships]; they don’t have much drama, so they don’t have much to talk about!
What do you do if one partner gets dementia or is unable to have sex?
The first thing you do is to have that conversation when you’re both younger, and your brains are working well. You have these conversations before you get sick — before the age of 50. It’s important that you sit down with your partners and talk about this kind of thing. What happens when one of us gets Alzheimer's? And you take it from there. You do what you always do in a poly community: you talk. You extract the information you can from each other about what you would want.
What other issues could an aging poly run up against?
Divorce. There are people who just bail out, because caring for someone old and demented is a problem, and it’s very burdensome for the healthy partner.... I think that polyamory is a way of approaching this problem, of being there for a failing partner but still getting your own needs met.
What about people who weren’t poly to begin with, like someone who at 50 just doesn’t want sex any more?
I can think of one example of a couple in Illinois, where he went off on his own and went to swing clubs as a single man and went to parties by himself. And his wife stayed home and felt sorry for herself. And after a year or two, she ultimately joined him, and they now have a very happy, adventuresome poly/swing lifestyle. And they go to swinger conventions all the time, and they’re in their 70s!
What about people who discover bisexuality in their 60s?
Sometimes people don’t really discover their homosexuality or bisexuality until they’re older, when all of those programmings we have when we are young tend to go away. And you say “Gee, I’m really attracted to same sex!” Well, you need to sit down with your partner or partners and tell ’em. And that’s one of the beauties of polyamory, that your partners would be supportive of your needs.
What if you were monogamous until you discover your bisexuality?
That’s what lawyers thrive on.... [But] that’s one of the beauties of polyamory: if you can work these things out you don't have to get divorced. There are lots of options open to you if you keep an open mind and are flexible....
Listen here (April 8, 2015).
This show was a followup to Minx's Senior Sex show in January (Episode 417), which featured an interview with Joan Price. She's the author of the landmark book Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex (2011). As it happens, Ken Haslam contributed material about poly to that book. He commented at the time, "to my knowledge this is the first description of Polyamory in a book directed at Golden Years sexuality."
Perhaps surprisingly, old people tend to be less hung up than others about monogamy in their relationships, according to a study published in The Irish Psychiatrist titled "From closet to reality: Optimal sexuality among the elderly" (2009). It found that "about half of the participants who had been married 25 years and were over age 60 were not monogamous," Ken noted at the time. "There is even a mention of the word 'poly' by one of the subjects." I can't find a free link, but the reference is Kleinplatz, P.J., Ménard, A.D., Paradis, N., Campbell, M., Dalgleish, T., Segovia, A., & Davis, K. (2009). From closet to reality: Optimal sexuality among the elderly, The Irish Psychiatrist, 10(1), 15-18.
Ken continues, "This phenomenon of greater acceptance of non-monmogamous behavior in older people was also observed by [Alfred] Kinsey; see the section 'Relation to Age' in the chapter on extramarital sex in his 'Female' volume (page 416)."
Elderly polyfolks are not high on the media's interest list, but sometimes we see exceptions.
● Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor made news when she supported her declining husband's love affair with a fellow patient in his nursing home (2007).
● Robert H. Melton, a leading writer and editor at the Washington Post, suffered brain damage in 2003 and he ended up living happily with the devotion and support of his wife and her other, newer husband (2012).
● Breast Cancer and Polyamory: A Story of Non-monogamy, Love and Commitment While Going Through Chemo — an interview with Allena Gabosch, the aging founder of Seattle’s Center for Sex Positivity and "a polyamorous, sex-scene goddess" (Oct. 25, 2011).
Grief and Loss Among the Polys by John Ullman (with photo at right), and Sex at Sunset by Valerie White.
● While we're at it, there's a recently started Facebook group, Poly Over 50.
● And in closing, Time magazine has a photo essay and story on its website about Jeanie, Will and Adina, ages 82, 84 and 90, who formed a vee very late in life. They don't say they're poly, and one of the women opines that simple couple relationships are best, but "The trio’s relationship clearly challenges cultural norms. Will, describing the trio’s bond, said, “We live above the law. Not outside the law, but above the law. We are not outlaws.”
|Jeanie, Will and Adina.|