Anita Rao 00:02
I personally didn’t spend a lot of time around very old folks growing up. I had three living grandparents for most of my childhood, but they all lived overseas. We traveled to see them occasionally, but I never had that day-to-day closeness with seniors that some of my friends experienced: weekends visiting older relatives, or calling up a grandparent on a whim to catch up on life. When my grandfather passed away last year at the age of 83, he and my grandmother had been married for 53 years. Seven kids, 20 grandkids and eight great-grandkids later, they had weathered a lot in their relationship, some of which I knew, a lot of which I did it. My grandmother has been having a really hard time in the wake of my grandfather’s death. Even though they never had a lovey-dovey kind of relationship, it’s clear how much their partnership fueled her life, especially in their later years. The weight of her grief is taking a massive toll on her mind and her body. And it’s forced me to sit with a lot of big thoughts about aging, relationships and intimacy throughout the stages of our life: How do our aging bodies shape how we navigate our relationships? What does it look like to date, love and have sex again when it’s been years with the same partner? This is “Embodied.” I’m Anita Rao. Even though it’s been mine for a couple of decades now, on a lot of levels, I’m still getting to know my body. I also know that my body is going to keep changing as I age, inside and out, and probably in some ways that I’d never guess. As body and sex positive as I’d like to think that I am, I’ll admit that I’m worried. What will turning 50, 60, 70 due to my sexual desire, my comfort with and confidence in my own appearance, and my ability to welcome new relationships into my life? We’re taught to respect our elders, so it’s only with the deepest respect that I introduce you to Omisade Burney-Scott.
Omisade Burney-Scott 02:19
I turned 50 two years ago. And I have two sons: one 27 and one 10. And my 10 year old — then 8 — said to me: You know, you’re a half-century old. [Laughs] And I said: Mmmm. This is true.
Anita Rao 02:34
Omisade is the creator of a podcast called “The Black Girls’ Guide To Surviving Menopause.” The show’s title itself is pretty self explanatory, but Omisade has enough candor and curiosity about her journey through her 50s to spare. So I asked her to describe some of the ways aging has affected her mind, body and spirit.
Omisade Burney-Scott 02:55
Looking at your body, inhabiting your body, there’s so many things that are happening. I feel like this is like a second puberty. I remember all of the anticipation when I was 12 to getting my first cycle, to having enough breasts to actually wear a bra. It was so much. And there are all kinds of conversations. Everybody was constantly talking to you about: This is what you should prepare for. This is so exciting. Are you ready? Like we read “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret” like all the time. And when I started in perimenopausal kind of phase of life, no one was having conversations with me. And unfortunately, at that time, my mother was already deceased. And so I couldn’t like tap into her and say: Hey, Mommy, I’m pregnant. And I’m 41. And I’m also like, going through some other things. Is this, what I should expect? Right? And so here I am now 52. And I still want to have those conversations around this, kind of, I don’t know mix of self-consciousness and self-awareness.
Anita Rao 03:58
Yeah, you want to have these conversations, because it’s something you feel like that isn’t being talked about. And you’re experiencing something so specific in your body that you haven’t before. Can you walk us through what’s actually happening in your physical body? How it feels, what you’ve noticed?
Omisade Burney-Scott 04:11
Well, I say for me, and this is specifically for me, because there’s no kind of like homogeneity around what people are experiencing in terms of menopause because we’re all different and wired differently. For me, my experiences have been around weight fluctuation. I have four different sizes in my closet — not pleased about that. And I can, at any given time, like this is the day I can wear these jeans. This is the day where those jeans are like not today, darling. It’s not gonna happen. Sleeplessness has been a thing. I feel like insomnia is actually my girlfriend. She sits on the side of my bed at 3 o’clock in the morning goes: Hey, remember all that stuff you’re supposed to do today that you didn’t get done? Let’s talk about it.
Anita Rao 04:52[Laughs]
Omisade Burney-Scott 04:52
She’s a constant companion. I also feel like I’m already an emotional, passionate person. And my experience of menopause is like, that’s been heightened, where I can listen to a song in the car, and then I just burst into tears. Or if I see something really sweet, or I see a kid, I’m like: Oh, they’re so sweet. And then I burst into tears. I also am experiencing anger. And anger is not something that I feel that I can be honest about experiencing, especially given the stereotypes and tropes about angry black women. It’s very hard for me to negotiate publicly when I feel angry. And so I need safe and sacred spaces where I can express that anger and not feel judged.
Anita Rao 05:30
It’s interesting because there are certain stories about our bodies that we associate with various periods of our life. And I think puberty we say: Oh, we are changing. Our bodies are supposed to change. But it seems like there’s almost this story that you’ve inherited that your body shouldn’t be changing anymore. And it is, and that is challenging to deal with.
Omisade Burney-Scott 05:47
I think it’s, umm, so it’s societal and it’s also cultural, right? So your body’s changing. And change is a shameful thing, because it’s associated with aging, right? So we live in a society that values youthfulness, thinness, whiteness, [and] straightness. Black women are definitely not on the top of the list of things that people would consider valuable. So when you are going through changes where your hair looks different, your body looks different, your emotions are different, it’s a very hard thing to negotiate in a public space, because you’re already battling against stereotypes and tropes.
Anita Rao 06:25
You are trying to start conversations with other women, and you’ve had a number of them so far, what are the most profound things that you’ve heard about how women are navigating this changing period of their body?
Omisade Burney-Scott 06:35
Yeah, so, I started the podcast out of a need to have conversations with folks just to kind of ground truth my experience. I didn’t want to think that I was the only person going through these things. And so I reached out to folks who were in my peer group. But I also wanted to talk to older black women — like who were significantly older than me — 20-30 years older than me. And the first thing that struck me was the resounding enthusiasm to have the conversation. I was like: Hey, you want to talk about menopause? And they’re like: Oh my god, yes. I’m like, really? Okay. Great. I’m like: Do you want to talk about sex? And they were like: Oh, yes. Do you want to talk about intimacy and romance and change and risk? They were like: Yes, yes, yes. And so I think the invitation to the conversation was first for me [from] a very selfish place: I needed it. And then the emphatic ‘yes,’ was like: Oh, this is a thing. This is not just what Omi’s experiencing. This is actually a cultural experience that is kind of cloistered and kept away from folk.
Anita Rao 07:39
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to acknowledge the medium where Omisade is having these important conversations. It’s the same one you’re listening to right now. People over the age of 55 are way under-represented in podcast listenership. Most audience studies show they make up somewhere around 20% of average monthly listeners overall. But Omisade and others are finding success making connections with older adults through explorations of sex, love and relationships in this space. Laura Stassi is the host and creator of the podcast “Dating While Gray.”
Laura Stassi 08:13
I’d started writing about dating while gray when I went through my own divorce only because — not that I thought: Oh, this would be a great creative project. But because I really did not know how to date. I got married very young — stayed married. And then the divorce, even though, you know, [I] should have seen it coming. It was really kind of unexpected that: Okay, now what? Because my kids had just launched. And not that I needed to have a partner. I do want it to be clear: I do feel like it’s important for everyone to learn how to be by themselves financially, emotionally, you know, it’s very important. But at the same time, I did realize that I want to find a romantic partner, and I had no idea how to do that. You hear about online dating, and I’ve tried it. And I’ve talked to people who have had success with it and people who haven’t. And I’ve talked to professionals about how to, you know, work the system. It just seemed like there had to be something more, or something better or something bigger. And so I just started talking to people. And my original focus was people 50 and older, no matter if they had been married for a long time or never married or widowed. How did they meet their next partner? And whether that partner was someone they dated just for three months, or you know, for the rest of their lives. People have been so vulnerable. Everybody wants to share. They might not necessarily want you to know their name or where they live, but they want to tell their stories, because we’ve all been in this position, you know, we’ve all been looking. It’s just like, we’re looking for hope. We’re looking for inspiration. We’re looking for answers. And so I tell everybody: I am no expert. I am the information gatherer. I don’t want it to make it sound simple, because I know it is difficult. But if there is a way just to kind of relax. This is life. Like what Sophy Burnham said, she said, you know: If you’re not coupled right now, but you want to be, enjoy this time, particularly because there will come a time when you’re not free to do whatever you want whenever you want.
Anita Rao 10:22
I love that older women are finding new ways to lead and have these discussions with each other. And don’t think us youngs aren’t paying attention. That’s because we’re always looking for as much factual information as possible.
Pepper Schwartz 10:35
The biggest cultural myth is that it’s not acceptable. It’s not exciting. It doesn’t work well as you age. And somehow you should pack it up at age 60 and, you know, concentrate on being somebody’s grandmother or somebody’s knitting partner.
Anita Rao 10:52
Facts, not fiction is what Professor Pepper Schwartz concentrates on also. She’s a sociologist and sexologist who teaches at the University of Washington. Pepper is also a relationships expert who consults on the Lifetime reality series “Married At First Sight.” She says that perhaps aging does come with some limitations, but it’s just a new chapter, not the end.
Pepper Schwartz 11:15
That’s pretty much the way previous generations conceived of it. But it’s changed, particularly in the baby boom generation, which has sort of been leading the charge of I would call constructive narcissism, which is to say: Love yourself and treat yourself as somebody lovable and figure it out about how you want to be in the world. But the world fights back. The world gives you only pictures of, you know, 15 year olds who’re supposed to be 25 year olds, and a 25 year old who was supposed to be 40 years old in the pictures and in the movies. And so, in a sense, we have to create new meaning and new vision in the way the baby boomers have done, you know, all through their lives. It’s hard because, you know, as much as we can ideologically believe that, you know, beauty is variable and all kinds of beauty can make us desirable, we have to go against years of how the society sees it. And it’s, it’s tough to love yourself that way. But it’s not impossible, and people do.
Anita Rao 12:14
So there’s this interesting study that came out in 2018 that I’ve know you’ve spoken about before about online dating, and it concluded that while men’s sexual desirability peaks at age 50, women starts high at 18 and falls from there. So can you talk about this statistic, and maybe from your work on the algorithm-design side of things on the online dating world, what you’ve learned about what older folks are looking for when they’re online? And how that’s shaped by some of these statistics?
Pepper Schwartz 12:45
Well, first of all, you know, dump those statistics. Because, you know, somebody answered that on, you know, some kind of questionnaire, or they have other studies where they looked at pictures. And yes, you know, you’re going to look at all kinds of features differently when you’re just going picture after picture or question after question. But if you’re in with persons, real people, then it becomes highly variable about how exciting and desirable you are. You know, I know plenty of people who have the right mix of things that they need to present themselves, and they stay desirable into their 90s. I have lots and lots of anecdotes like that. So I really feel like you could depress the hell out of yourself if you just think that these things are stuck in concrete and that you have no power over them. You know, what I think it is, is there’s a lack of — one of your earlier commentators eloquently put it about how everybody prepares you for puberty but not for your aging body and aging itself. I really think that that’s what we need. We need a lot more coaching about how to do this, because it’s doable, but we need help. And we don’t get any help. It’s one of the other ways that society offloads its older people as if, well, if you’re not going to be fertile, we’re just not going to be interested in you.
Anita Rao 14:19
If I want an educated glimpse into just how I might age, I have a pair of people I can study closely: my parents. But I wondered how much they talk to each other about getting older. And what about that process has had the biggest impact on their relationship? Mom was very clear about what it was for her.
Sheila Rao (Anita’s mom) 14:40
Oh, yeah. Menopause is difficult. Very difficult. I had a lot of hot flashes and a lot of emotional ups and downs in menopause. It’s really a tough time. People, I think, downplay it. You lose your estrogen. So, just like basic things. Like you become much more hairy, like I have to go get my face waxed, because I have like dark hair on my face. It’s kind of not very nice. That is as a problem. What else with my body? Some rolls around the middle, but not too bad.
Anita Rao 15:12[Laughs]
Sheila Rao (Anita’s mom) 15:14
You want to know more like specifics? Like yeah, definitely diminished libido. You don’t have any interest in sex like you would have when you’re younger, because really your hormones are all gone.
Anita Rao 15:25
As you were going through it, did you talk about it with anyone? Like did you process what was going on?
Sheila Rao (Anita’s mom) 15:30
I talked to my OB a little bit. And I think I got quite down and was like fairly depressed, and I sought out help at that point. And, you know, talked to dad and told him how I was feeling. He has been really quite good and supportive.
Anita Rao 15:46
Dad, how about for you? Do you have any fears about how aging will impact your romantic relationship moving forward?
Satish Rao (Anita’s dad) 15:52
No, I don’t think so. I think, you know, I mean, it is important to accept that as we age, you know, companionship and romanticism will also change. And if you become more friends and more companionship and less of romanticism. I think that’s a natural process of aging and growing up with partners. But I think the point that mom made earlier on about the menopause, I think that was probably one of the most challenging times in our lives. I think, particularly for her, starting from about 2012, snd I would say all the way until about 2017. I think those five years, or even 2018. I think [those] five years were really the most challenging. It was very difficult to many times understand. She would be very short tempered. She would cry a lot sometimes for small, petty things, which we couldn’t fully understand. Our relationship became very challenged. And that was probably the only time where she, for at least three years in a row, she would say I want to go and live in the Himalayas.
Sheila Rao (Anita’s mom) 17:18[Laughs] God, I would say that all the time.
Anita Rao 17:19[Laughs] You wanted to go live in the Himalayas?
Sheila Rao (Anita’s mom) 17:21
I’m like, I just want to get out of this life. I want to go to the Himalayas. I just don’t want to deal with my problems. It was horrible. Yeah, it was really difficult. I mean, looking back now I’m just sitting laughing and smiling. But when you’re going through it, it’s horrible.
Satish Rao (Anita’s dad) 17:36
If she ever decides to go to the Himalayas, then think that that’s what is happening.
Anita Rao 17:40[Laughs]
Sheila Rao (Anita’s mom) 17:43
Actually, at that time, I’d be like, I used to say: I hate guys, because, you know, they just are the same. You know, they don’t have any fluctuations. And it would just really annoy me that Dad would just be just so rocksteady. And I’d be just all over the map. I’ve come through that thank goodness. But you can see how that would just have so many problems in your relationship. If you don’t … if someone doesn’t understand,
Anita Rao 18:05
Sheila Rao (Anita’s mom) 18:06
It’s not just something that’s going to go on for a month. It’s like a couple of years, right?
Satish Rao (Anita’s dad) 18:11
I think it is important. That has a major bearing in people’s lives, and I think more people should talk about this and more people should, you know, find solutions of how to cope with it and how to recognize that this is a passing phase of life. But, you know, with patience, perseverance and love, I think one can overcome it.
Anita Rao 18:41
There’s a series running on Netflix now called “Girlfriends.” It’s an old show that follows an old model: four young, single women navigating love and relationships in the big city. In the case of girlfriends, the big city was LA. And even though elements of the show are formulaic, it’s downright brilliant. “Girlfriends” premiered in the year 2000. So some people are watching through a nostalgic lens, while others are discovering these characters for the first time. In season one, there’s an episode where all the girlfriends trying to find partners through a medium that was taboo at the time: online dating. There are countless jokes about desperate measures and meeting serial killers in the plot. Again, this is the early aughts, and there was actually shame in searching for love on the internet. That shame persists with a population that’s just not as comfortable developing relationships with a digital assist.
Ellen Ashley 19:36
The good news is I had girlfriends who were single and had been dating a long time, and they were telling me about all the dating sites and new ways to meet people. And so, as soon as I I was single, I immediately was on dating sites.
Anita Rao 19:50
Ellen Ashley was married for 25 years. After her divorce, she turned to tech that wasn’t even widely available the last time she was single. She explored her app options, made a profile and…
Ellen Ashley 20:03
And I was on Match, and I tried Tinder. And I tried Ok Cupid. And so, you know, Tinder is the scary one for everybody because they say it’s a hookup site. And, of course, my friend Judy in Boston who’s in the northeast, she says: Oh my God, that’s the best one. But it’s not a hookup site. But honestly, you know, you put no personal information into Tinder except a photo pretty much. So, yeah. It’s a hook-up site pretty much.
Anita Rao 20:29
Being married for so long actually helped Ellen focus on exactly what she wanted in a partner when she started to date again.
Ellen Ashley 20:50
This marriage had been sort of losing intimacy really over the last 10 years of it. So, when I left that marriage, I was so ready again for intimacy.
Anita Rao 21:02
What were some of your fears as you left that relationship, as a woman who was now 60?
Ellen Ashley 21:10
I guess the biggest thing was, when you are coming out of a marriage, when there was very little intimacy, I didn’t feel beautiful or desirable anymore. And so dating was scary, because, well, for so many reasons. I hadn’t been dating for 26 years or more.
Anita Rao 21:28
Well, what was it like to build a profile of yourself as someone who hadn’t been in the dating world for 20-some years to now kind of create this online persona for other people to see. What was that like for you?
Ellen Ashley 21:41
It was a challenge. You know, I re-did my profile several times. I found that you really do need professional photos. And because the first thing — especially for guys sorry — but I mean, they’re very visually oriented. They don’t really care if you’re the best cook, the best dancer, you know all this. If you don’t look good to them, they’re not even gonna reply to you on a Match dating site. So photos are very important. But I what I did find was that at least Match and Ok Cupid walk you through a lot of questions so that you know, kind of, what people look for. They want to know, if you’ve got kids, if you’re retired yet, or what kind of hobbies you have. Are you politically liberal or conservative, and so forth. So you get a pretty good profile just filling out those questions.
Anita Rao 22:27
So you hadn’t experienced intimacy or sexual intimacy, I guess, in a particular way, for a long time. What was it like to renegotiate that once you were out in the dating world again?
Ellen Ashley 22:40
it was a huge challenge. [Laughs] I mean, physically. I went to my gynecologist and said: I need help just physically getting things working again, you know, because, you know, your body atrophies when you don’t exercise. Well, guess what? Your, your other parts of your body atrophy, too. So, there was that. Yeah. And then you were really careful who you were meeting up with, because if you weren’t with a very, very considerate man or woman, you know, that it wasn’t going to be fun for you anyway.
Anita Rao 23:13
And as, I mean, as a marriage ends, you’re obviously … you were interested in dating again and rebuilding that part of your life. But you also spent a lot of energy rebuilding other parts of your life and other friendships and other kind of intimate bonds. Can you talk a bit about that and what your experience has been in kind of expanding the range of relationships that you have?
Ellen Ashley 23:32
Yes, absolutely. Um well, one thing you find when you’re married — the people you hang out with are all married too. And when they have a dinner party, it’s all couples if you’re married. And when you’re suddenly single, I found that my married friends weren’t like inviting me to dinner parties anymore, right? So, I was … I was finding out how to be single again. And I discovered meetup groups, which are absolutely wonderful. I mean, it’s an online app Meetup. And there are meetups for people over 40 and people over 50. And there’s the book groups, and there are wine lover groups and everything. And so, so I joined a couple of these and found that it was … they were so welcoming. Not everybody was single, but by far 95%, I would say, are. And so it was cool when they would have an event to go to like, you know, an evening of music. You know, you could just, you know, check the box [that] said “Yes, I’m going too.” And when you show up, your people are there, right? So you don’t feel like alone, even though you’re going out alone. You’re not alone when you get there. And it was so wonderful to have that. So it really filled that social void in my life at that time, and it still does.
Anita Rao 24:55
Pepper Schwartz, the sexologist-sociologist we heard from earlier also used the setting of a dinner party to illustrate something about aging and intimacy for me. This was a real one she was invited to. Also invited was a 90-year-old woman and the man she was dating: a guy in his 80s.
Pepper Schwartz 25:12
And this friend of mine, who’s pretty brusque, said: Do you guys have sex? And the woman in her 90s looked at my friend and said: Of course. Now, I don’t know what the realities here are. But what does sex mean? Does it necessarily mean that you’ve got some kind of two-hour marathon? [Laughs] Not that many people get that when they’re 25, much less when they’re 85. But does it mean that people can, in fact, figure out ways to sexually please each other, have orgasms, feel sexually fulfilled all the way to the life cycle? Yes, they can. Can they necessarily do it the way they did it 50 years ago? No. But if ageism doesn’t stop them from being innovative, if they don’t feel defeated because they don’t have a hard enough erection, or they need artificial lubricant, etc. If they don’t let that stop them, then there’s no reason they can’t continue on throughout the lifecycle being fully sexual and intimate people.
Anita Rao 26:15
If you don’t believe Pepper Schwartz, let me leave you with some encouraging final thoughts from Ellen Ashley whose online pursuits had paid off when we talked.
Ellen Ashley 26:24
I had dated a lot before I met this new gentleman who is absolutely wonderful. I met him about six months ago. But before I met him, I had dated … I had I met — close your ears Barrett — 35 people face-to-face. That’s after I’d kind of screened them online and like eliminated several. Tthere were a lot of one dates, right. And so I had kind of almost given up hope of finding one, and I was becoming more and more happy just going out and being with my Meetup group and dating occasionally and stuff. And then I met this gentleman, and he is, as a girlfriend says: Ellen, you could not have designed a better man. We have so much in common. He’s learning to dance with me. He joined my jazzercise group. He cuts my grass,. I’ll get out of the shower when he comes over, and he’s cutting my grass while I’m getting ready. I mean, I am telling you that life can be fabulous in the 60s. And if you need more encouragement, my mother who is now 93, she assured me that desire does not end at 90.
Anita Rao 27:33
This episode of “Embodied” was produced by the excellent Dana Terry and Charlie Shelton-Ormond. And it concludes this season of our podcast. If this is the first time you’re listening to “Embodied,” go check out our other episodes on this app and learn more about the show at wunc.org/embodied. Also, be sure to subscribe, so you know when we have new episodes coming out. Jenni Lawson is our amazing sound engineer. Lindsey Foster-Thomas is our executive producer and director of content. “Embodied” is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC. If you’ve ever listened to the show, and decided to make a donation to WUNC because of it, I can’t thank you enough. Every donation at wunc.org helps make more episodes and more seasons of this podcast possible. Thanks also to North Carolina’s Weaver Street Market hosting their fall wine event featuring 31 wines now through October 20, including a selection of organic and sustainably farmed. Online ordering and contactless delivery are availabl: weaverstreetmarket.coop And special thanks to the composer of our original theme music: Quilla. Quilla’s new album is called “The Handbook of Vivid Moments,” and it includes our theme “Algorithms With Benefits.” Here’s the album version of that song. I’m Anita Rao on an exploration of our brains, our bodies and taking on the taboo with you.