I had a call the other day from a friend who’s been a widow for several years. “I’ve found someone!” she told me, with just the slightest quiver in her voice. “I’m so excited I can hardly concentrate at work.”
Of course I was happy for her -- and happy that she called to set up an appointment with me for an exam in anticipation of resuming her sexual life. “I think everything’s going to be okay,” she said, “but I think I might want to come in and see you first so you can tell me for sure.”
She did come in to see me and I was glad to be able to reassure her that, from a physical perspective, she was good to go. If I am able to place two fingertips in a patient’s vagina without causing pain or discomfort, it’s a good bet that she’s going to be able to have intercourse comfortably.
But more than a few post-menopausal patients who come to my office have been astonished to discover that they can’t pass the two-finger test. Their vaginal walls have narrowed and thinned over a period of time without regular intercourse, and I have to tell them it’s going to take some work to get back into a condition where penetration will even be possible, let alone comfortable.
I run into this fairly frequently with women who are widowed and divorced at our stage of life. They are grieving or angry -- or both -- and, without thinking too much about it, decide that their sexual days are behind them. Don’t need to worry about that anymore! But, as my ecstatic friend can attest: You never know. Surprises happen, and when they do, it sure would nice to know that your body’s ready and able to experience the pleasures of intercourse.
It’s one of my biggest concerns for single women our age. If you’re 30 when you divorce and 40 when you want to take it up again, there’s been no lost ground. But if you’re 50 and decide to resume sex at 60, it’s a very different story. You find yourself in a new relationship, you’re ready to be intimate, but your vaginal “architecture” has changed. It can be a very unhappy surprise.
Physical therapy with vaginal dilators can help to restore capacity for intercourse, but it’s much simpler -- and more pleasant! -- if you don’t lose that capacity in the first place. For all my patients and friends who are currently without partners, I recommend a “vaginal maintenance plan” that will help them keep their genitals healthy and ready for love: moisturize regularly; use a good lubricant; and experiment with a personal vibrator or dilator to preserve your capacity for penetration.
Because you never know.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.