Septuagenarian Sex, A Commonplace

Swearing on television? Old hat. Lesbian kisses? Boring. Nudity? Commonplace. It's getting harder to shock the general public these days, but in an era where Viagra and cosmetic surgery seem to be shifting the ground beneath our feet, are we ready to tackle one of the last remaining taboos — old folks getting physical?

Richard Branson's Virgin Money set the cat among the pigeons with its recent Australian home loan advertising campaign that features septuagenarian couple Bill and Glenys Ferguson locked in various embraces in various states of undress.

The '60s sex symbol Julie Christie, now in her 60s, is back on the big screen in advance screenings this weekend, in the acclaimed Canadian production Away From Her, this time as an Alzheimer's patient who forms a love triangle when she checks into a nursing home and forgets who her husband is.

American television, meanwhile, is being rocked by Tell Me You Love Me, from the edgy HBO network responsible for The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Sex and the City. The new cable TV series, which has been bought for Australia by the Ten Network, is sexually explicit, like Ten's current controversial series Californication, and portrays the sex lives of four couples, including that of an elderly therapist and her retired husband.

"The shock of seeing Foster (the therapist) having sex is an effective and unsettling reminder of how desexualised anyone older than 50 is in this society," wrote reviewer Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times early this month.

Theatre too is chiming in with Half Life, the story of a couple who fall in love in a nursing home thinking they are rekindling an old flame. Canadian playwright and mathematician John Mighton says the work, which makes its Australian debut next month at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, surprised him with its topicality

"When I wrote the play I simply wanted to try to look more deeply at what I had seen and experienced in the nursing home where my mother spent five years," he says. "In hindsight I couldn't have chosen a more relevant topic.

"In an age when more and more of us will do anything to hide the physical effects of ageing, people feel uncomfortable about the prospect of witnessing love or sex between older people. They're simply not accustomed to seeing these things. But audiences have found the acts of physical tenderness in movies like Away From Her or this play refreshing, and perhaps even consoling."

Gerard Mansour, the chief of Aged and Community Care Victoria, says the aged care industry has always been conscious that older people were still sexually active, though it's not behaviour that gets aired in the public domain very often. His organisation is even working on a resource due for release in the next few months called "Expressing Sexuality in Residential Aged Care".

"It's something people don't like to talk about — it's like teenagers talking about sex with their parents," he says. "Old people don't lose their sex drive just because they're older. The principle we work from is that your freedoms don't change when you enter aged care."

As for Bill and Glenys, married 57 years and still mad for each other, they joined 277 couples in Sydney's Centennial Park earlier this month and smashed the world record for the number of couples gathered in one place to renew their vows.

They plan to celebrate their 80th birthdays with a tandem skydive and will splurge the money they've earned from the Virgin Money ads on a trip to New York and a romantic cruise home on the QE2.

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