Aging Gratefully

by Shelley Taylor, Certified Sexual Health Educator

In 1998, I founded Venus Envy, an inclusive and affirming sexual health education shop. What started as a teeny tiny space in an out of the way location in Halifax ended up as two bustling store-fronts in two cities. At this point, I have been in the business of talking about sex and sexual health for over two decades. After years of supporting older people in their need to find lubricants, dilators, vibrators, dildos, constriction rings, and harnesses (all items that are very useful as we age), I found myself in a similar position a couple of years ago. At first, I was sort of amused by my hot flashes and softening body; it felt like a right of passage and a small price to pay for the privilege of growing older, something many of us don’t get to do. This made me value the experience dearly. But at some point, things took a very uncomfortable turn. My bits started to ache, I was getting yeast overgrowth after each period, the viscosity of my vaginal lubrication had completely changed (and become useless for sex and day-to-day comfort), and I had stopped thinking about sex.

I’m a sexual health educator—I think about sex all the time. But I had stopped wanting to have sex, stopped looking at Tinder, stopped asking my wife for dates, stopped wearing cute underpants—all the sexy thoughts just stopped. I sat on these changes for over a year and then finally made an appointment with my naturopath. She suggested some ways to increase hormone production and I followed these suggestions pretty closely. A couple of things improved—my genitals got “plumper,” I had less irritation after my periods, and fewer yeast infections. I even slept a bit better. But I didn’t start having sexy thoughts again. I felt deflated, empty, withered, and frankly, old. Some of the deeply held and harmful cultural beliefs that I’ve spent my lifetime trying to resist crept in like a bad dream that I couldn’t quite shake off upon waking. We tend to see old people and especially old women as sexless, unattractive, a punchline to a bad joke. It was a very depressing and dark time when even a cuddle with my partner felt like I was failing to be the person she had married. I’ve always been someone who, even if I didn’t have a super high sex drive, really valued sexual connection and play. I speak of this experience of witnessing myself change and contending with aging like it’s a thing of the past, but it’s not. It is still a daily affair and it continues to take a lot of real estate in my mind and in my life.

Frankly, with my years of experience supporting others through the aging process and how it tangles up with our sexual health, I thought I would find this transition easier. I assumed that my knowledge and beliefs in the importance of sexual expression throughout our lifespan would mean that I could navigate these changes more smoothly. Unfortunately, that only made it more frustrating. I was going out to train educators and healthcare providers about effective ways to communicate with their clients on the topic of aging while feeling like I couldn’t figure out my own body. The gift of this frustrating situation is that, because of my own challenges, I now have better insight into what others are experiencing, which makes me a more understanding and well-rounded educator.

But as the saying goes, I recently realized I had been the proverbial poorly shod shoemaker. One thing I have been saying for years to people going through sexual health transitions is that we have to be our own advocate, learning as much as we can, weighing our options, and getting as much information from as many different types of experts as possible. During a session, I found myself saying this to a class and realized I hadn’t taken my own advice. I was getting excellent advice and care from my naturopath to help me navigate my own grappling with menopause and aging, but I hadn’t explored what my medical doctor could do for me.

I recently made an appointment to get a prescription for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and requested a referral to the Menopause Clinic at Mt Sinai Hospital. So far, and it’s only been a few days, I haven’t noticed any changes except my night sweats are much worse than when I was taking the supplements suggested by my naturopath, but I’m going to be patient and see what happens in a couple months.

I look forward to feeling some positive changes while taking HRT. I recognize that hormone changes are one part of the aging process, but as with any other health issue, we need to consider our whole selves to understand and manage our challenges. If we want to have a positive aging experience, we need to understand all the factors that inform the shape it takes for us. Not only are there physical changes happening in our bodies, but we can’t underestimate the powerful societal forces and messages we get bombarded with about aging. We live in a world that uses sex to sell pretty much everything, but that same world is incredibly sex negative. We’re expected to make do with substandard sexual health education, to repress our authentic sexual selves and expression (at least for many of us) and to keep our sexual health worries to ourselves. Silence and shame, while the norm, has not really helped any of us and it has certainly not helped me as I grappled with my own aging.

With all this in mind, you’ll find a number of ideas in the Action Canada website, things we can all try to incorporate into our lives to increase blood flow, promote positive thoughts and feelings about aging, and generally pay more attention to a part of us that we often push aside or see as a trivial or frivolous part of life.

In 1998, Shelley Taylor founded Venus Envy, an inclusive and affirming sexual health education shop with locations in Ottawa and Halifax. In addition to running her business, she grew Venus Envy into bustling community spaces where people could come to gather and learn. Over the years, Shelley has taught a variety of topics related to sexual and reproductive health to individuals, students, healthcare professionals, and front-line service providers. Shelley is also an Opt Certified Sexual Health Educator with a background in Adult Education. Currently, Shelley is a Health Education Coordinator with CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.