I have been writing about physical simplification in later adulthood. According to Lewis Joseph Sherrill, to simplify physically is to accept the changes that occur in our bodies as we age, focusing on those physical features that are most important and letting the less important ones diminish in significance to us. My first post on physical simplification had to do with changes in appearance. In it I talked about rejecting cultural standards about perpetually looking young, instead accepting our wrinkles, grey hair, and the like.
Besides appearance, physical simplification also includes accepting our diminished strength, endurance, and agility. Can I still walk up a flight of stairs without puffing like a steam locomotive on a steep upgrade? Can I lift the box of books I just packed for my upcoming move? Can I still touch my toes?
One place where many of us resist simplification as to physical performance is in our exercise routines. Most gyms have at least one or two aging regulars who are trying to recover their former physical prowess. I find running to be the activity that most tempts me to struggle against worsened performance. I wrote earlier about the challenges of being an aging runner. I do well at trimming how often and far I run to fit with what my body will allow. However, I still do find myself pushing the pace too much (not that anyone watching could tell). I end up with sore ankles and hips. I think my quickened pace is motivated by a barely conscious desire to stave off decline–not just decline in my running speed, but all manner of decline.
Thinking about this struggle makes it clear to me what I need to do. I need to simplify this aspect of my exercise routine, running at a comfortable pace and reminding myself that the important thing is to retain the capacity to run (and eventually to walk), not to do so as fast as my scrawny legs will carry me.
Physical prowess also includes sexual prowess. Difficulty with sexual performance increases with age. Men may have more trouble achieving and maintaining erections; women may have pain during intercourse due to vaginal dryness. Both men and women usually need more time to achieve arousal.
Such difficulties don’t necessarily mean that sex between older couples is always of poor quality. In fact, an argument can be made that older partners are usually less self-conscious or anxious about performance, making sex better. Sherrill’s focus on simplification leads him to suggest that, even when the sex act can’t be completed as it once was, something more important can come to the fore:
“Love is eternal, rejoicing in the body of the beloved, yet not decaying with the decay of the body, not dying with its physical death. Love ‘abideth'”
Though we do what we can to maintain sexual vitality, it’s nice to know that, even if libido fails and sex organs forget their function, embers of touch and tenderness can continue to glow.