By Maxine Dovere/JNS.org
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the Holocaust survivor turned internationally known sex educator, gave an interview with JNS.org in 2012. Now 86 years old, she reviewed her best tips for senior living—including cultivating relationships with adult children and grandchildren, finding a partner (and enjoying life without one), and being practical when it comes to finances.
Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany, the woman now known as “Dr. Ruth” saw her father arrested by Nazis and says a final goodbye to her mother as she boarded a Kindertransport rescue train to Switzerland.
By 17, she was in the British mandate of Palestine on a kibbutz, and, later in Jerusalem, the diminutive teenager became a sniper for the Haganah forces. A bombing on the night of her 20th birthday left her badly wounded, but she recovered and went on to study at Paris’s Sorbonne, as well as the New School and Columbia University (for a doctorate in education) in New York.
Three marriages (two brief ones, followed by the last to Manfred Westheimer for more than 30 years), two children (Miriam and Joel), and a self-designed and determined persona later, the octogenarian found herself in a theater in Western Massachusetts, watching an on-stage portrayal of her life.
“I had to pinch myself a few times to realize that I was in the audience and not on stage,” Dr. Ruth Westheimer says.
A self-created, resilient survivor, Dr. Ruth became an internationally known sex educator at a time when many consider retirement.
Dr. Ruth’s essential focus is living as fully as possible. “People have to be active, to do things,” she says. “Do a new activity every single day. Take a course, go to a concert, make sure to keep a relationship with a neighbor—to schmooze a little, not just to cry on someone’s shoulder. If you have to cry, go to a professional; no one wants to hear about problems.”
She is a firm proponent of continuous growth and change. “Things have changed since ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ or ‘Fear of Flying.’ Establish a new vocabulary,” she advises. “Read books; look at sexually arousing material.”
Dr. Ruth recommends 50 Shades of Gray —“all three volumes.”
“If someone doesn’t like it, you can close the chapter,” she says. “If [she] does like it, the book proves the point that woman can get aroused.”
Whether they are young or old, most singles would like to be doubles. JNS.org asked Dr. Ruth what she recommends to help people—especially seniors—find partners.
“Be involved! Go to concerts, performances, lectures—events of interest. Women have to take the risk of being the one to start a relationship, to say to a man ‘would you like to go for a coffee. If the answer is ‘no,’ go on to the next one!” she says.
If partnership is not possible, Dr. Ruth advises, “find a place that will be enjoyable, and give you some satisfaction—even if you don’t meet a partner.”
Even for those seniors lucky enough to find an emotional partner, establishing a physical relationship can sometimes be difficult. “Even older people should go to see a sex therapist,” says Dr. Ruth. “Very often, a problem is something physical. Go to your family physician or gynecologist. Use whatever physical or mechanical aide is needed. Engage in sex in the morning. Do not have expectations that he can hang from a chandelier!”
“Don’t ask me about my sex life!” she added. “You will not get an answer. I don’t ask intimate questions except of my patients.”
What, asked JNS.org, if one does remain alone and does not find a new partner?
“People have an obligation to themselves,” Dr. Ruth says. “If they feel a sexual urge and are alone, they should get used to the idea of masturbating—even to orgasm. They will be more satisfied—have a different way of walking. Of course it’s not the same as with a partner—that’s true. But, I am someone who stands with two feet in reality: make the best of it! No one will be helped by crying about things they cannot change.”
That, says Dr. Ruth, includes adult children. “They will never understand,” she says. “You have to cultivate your relationship with your adult children and grandchildren. Call them. Ask ‘do you have a moment?’ Don’t say, ‘you didn’t come to see me.’ Say ‘whatever is convenient—that fits with your plans.’ Be flexible. Go to a coffee shop. Let them know, ‘I would like to see you…I’ll take the time you can give me and be satisfied.’”
The same “children” who may have little time to spend with a parent, often have much to say about a parent’s new partner. Says Dr. Ruth, while the new partner “will never replace the father or mother, never be an intimate part of the family,” children should be “civil and polite” and recognize that the mother or father’s companion makes life easier. “One would never go on the assumption the partner will be an intimate part of the family.”
Dr. Ruth is essentially a practical realist. She says companionship, perhaps even romance, adds much to living; so do existing assets.
“It’s very important for an older person who finds a new partner to write a detailed arrangement about money,” she says. “The children won’t have fears—even in their subconscious—that the inheritance from their parent will go to the partner’s family. You don’t need a fancy lawyer. Go to someone who can witness a legal agreement assuring that money will remain separate. In today’s contentious world, it is essential; an agreement is very important to calm any fear. Documentation is especially important when there is any unusual circumstance, such as when a grandparent is responsible for a minor child. Everything must be written. No one can foresee the future.”
The experience of being a senior—she is 86 and a widow—is one Dr. Ruth shares with many in her audience. Yet, she is clearly a work in progress. This summer, she will present Vin d’Amore, a California-bottled line of low alcohol wines—available in red, white, and rosé, of course—replete with her picture on the label.
“I tell people to drink a little, then have sex,” Dr. Ruth says.
“But,” she cautioned, “not too much—she falls asleep and he can’t perform. With wine, less is more.”
“Sherry Lansing,” she added, “says ‘not to retire but to re-wire.’ It’s very important. It’s exactly what I am doing.”