A fairy tale about ageing
When God had created the world and was about to fix the length of each creature’s life, the ass came and asked, ‘Lord, how long shall I live?’ ‘Thirty years,’ replied God; ‘does that
content thee?’ ‘Ah, Lord,’ answered the ass, ‘that is a long time. Think of my painful existence! To carry heavy burdens from morning to night, to drag sacks of corn to the mill, that others may eat bread, to be cheered and refreshed with nothing but blows and kicks. Relieve me of a portion of this long time.’ Then God had pity on him and relieved him of eighteen years. The ass went away comforted, and the dog appeared. ‘How long wouldst thou like to live?’ said God to him. ‘Thirty years are too many for the ass, but thou wilt be satisfied with that.’ ‘Lord,’ answered the dog, ‘is that thy will? Consider how I shall have to run, my feet will never hold out so long, and when I have once lost my voice for barking, and my teeth for biting, what will be left for me to do but run from one corner to another and growl?’ God saw that he was right, and released him from twelve years of life. Then came the monkey. ‘Thou wilt certainly live thirty years willingly?’ said the Lord to him. ‘Thou hast no need to work as the ass and the dog have to do, and wilt always enjoy thyself.’ ‘Ah! Lord,’ he answered, ‘it may seem as if that were the case, but it is quite different. When it rains porridge I have no spoon. I am always obliged to play merry pranks, and make faces which force people to laugh, and if they give me an apple, and I bite into it, why it is sour! How often sadness hides itself behind mirth! I shall never be able to hold out for thirty years.’ God was gracious and took off ten.
At last man appeared, joyous, healthy and vigorous, and begged God to appoint his time for him. ‘Thirty years shalt thou live,’ said the Lord. ‘Is that enough for thee?’ ‘What a short time,’ cried man, ‘when I have built my house and my fire burns on my own hearth; when I have planted trees which blossom and bear fruit, and am just intending to enjoy my life, I am to die! O Lord, lengthen my time.’ ‘I will add to it the ass’s eighteen years,’ said God. ‘That is not enough,’ replied the man. ‘Thou shalt also have the dog’s twelve years.’ ‘Still too little!’ ‘Well, then,’ said God, ‘I will give thee the monkey’s ten years also, but more thou shalt not have.’ The man went away, but was not satisfied.
So man lives seventy years. The first thirty are his human years, which are soon gone; then is he healthy, merry, works with pleasure, and is glad of his life. Then follow the ass’s eighteen years, when one burden after another is laid on him, he has to carry the corn which feeds others, and blows and kicks are the reward of his faithful services. Then come the dog’s twelve years, when he lies in the corner, and growls and has no longer any teeth to bite with, and when this time is over the
monkey’s ten years form the end. Then man is weak-headed and foolish, does silly things, and becomes the jest of the children.
This fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, written over a hundred years ago, expresses very succinctly a view of older people that is current even today. Very many young people assume that the above-mentioned stupid old monkeys no longer indulge in sexual activities. Place ‘old’ in front of some of the slang words for penis, and the insult stings even more. Being called a ‘prick’ is bad enough, but an ‘old prick’, one that no longer works, is far worse. What man does not dread the moment when his penis leaves him in the lurch once and for all?
Growing old has been compared to a game of chess, in which pieces are eventually lost, though certain strong pieces still control the board and can even engineer a powerful new position. But every chess player knows what the loss of the queen means in a game. The power of the queen is a very good analogy for the meaning of eroticism in a human life. In fact, it is not the loss of sexual performance, but the loss of the erotic dimension that generates most apprehension in confronting old age. Men can sometimes exorcize that fear, for example, through singing with their comrades. I was once given, by an anaesthetist friend of mine with greying temples, who had served as a doctor during his military service, the words of a song sung by British officers in the mess in the evenings. They are as follows:
Your spooning days are over Your pilot light is out What used to be your sex appeal Is now your water spout
You used to be embarrassed To make the thing behave For every bloody morning it Stood up to watch you shave But now that you are growing old It sure gives you the blues To see the thing hang down your leg And watch you shine your shoes
One thing remains: with the passing of the years the frequency of sexual activity declines. The Rotterdam physiologist and sexologist Koos Slob presented the following figures based on various surveys: 84 per cent of men in their fifties, 67 per cent of those in their sixties, 43 per cent of septuagenarians and 16 per cent of octogenarians are sexually active.
For women the percentages are 76 per cent (51-60), 40 per cent (6170) and 7 per cent (71-80) respectively. No survey information is available for women over 80. There are certainly great individual differences. The decline in later years is shown to be least in those most active at a young age.
Until quite recently experts believed that ed later in life was almost always the result of arteriosclerosis. There are also indications that the stiffness of the penis declines as one gets older as a result of a change in composition of both the erectile tissue compartments and the stiff capsule of connective tissue surrounding them, which plays an important part in retaining blood. It is anyway generally true that muscles, tendons and articular capsules grow thinner with age and lose their elasticity, and the loss of elasticity in the erectile tissue compartments is actually the main reason why the penis becomes shorter as one gets older. Of course there are other factors that can affect potency in the elderly. Chronic medication dependency and diseases like diabetes mellitus are more prevalent. Joint calcification caused, for example, by rheumatism, may cause pain and restrict movement, impeding intercourse. And although heart attacks and strokes need not automatically lead to problems in lovemaking the patient and his partner are understandably often frightened of a recurrence.
After a heart attack many men don’t dare ask their doctor for advice about their sex lives. For example, what exactly does ‘taking it easy’ mean in this context? It may well be that a reduction in sexual activity will have an adverse effect on the patient’s condition. It is understandable that men who have had a heart attack should be worried about putting too much strain on their heart, but heart patients can have a perfectly satisfying sex life without putting themselves at risk. Driving in heavy traffic, playing with a grandchild or having a heated discussion put more pressure on the heart than sexual intercourse. Research into the incidence of heart attacks during intercourse revealed that when these occurred they were almost always related to an extramarital affair, making such affairs particularly inadvisable for heart patients.