Dr. Ruth Westheimer
© Marianne Rafter
Too often the word ‘icon’ is used to describe people who hardly deserve the distinction, but in the case of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a woman who practically created the modern day mainstream sex therapy industry, it is the only word that truly fits. Dr. Ruth’s rise to prominence began in 1980, when a New York radio station brought her in as a guest on one of its shows to try and spice things up with some talk of the then-taboo subject of sex.
It is easy now to think of all the good-natured caricatures that have been done honoring Dr. Ruth’s unique personality, but let’s not forget that she has studied at the University of Paris, The New School, the Teachers College at Columbia University, and she did her post-doctoral work in human sexuality at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She also speaks four languages, has taught seminars at both Princeton and Yale, and she has been the foremost expert in her field for over three decades. This is all to say that she has the educational chops to back up the endearing personality. But back to1980…
After only two appearances as a guest, the station director suggested they give Dr. Ruth her own forum, which she promptly got in the form of a fifteen minute program that aired at midnight on Sunday nights.
It would be easy to presume that a quarter-hour show that aired during the graveyard shift on Sunday night would be quickly forgotten, however, as we now know, that wasn’t the case. The show was called Sexually Speaking and taped at NBC’s legendary 30 Rock Studio. In a very short time, the fifteen minute program became a hit and was expanded to an hour. Soon, David Letterman called, asking her to be a guest on his show, and within a few years, Dr. Ruth became a household name as America’s sex therapist. She has since been in national commercials, written several best-selling books, and to this day, at age 85, she still appears on national media outlets to talk about sex, or her newest area of expertise, being a caregiver for Alzheimer’s patients.
Staying On Top
One of the ways that Dr. Ruth keeps her energy up is that she says she always walks when she talks. In the middle of her eighth decade, she has no plans of slowing down.
“My exercise has always been walking. When I talk, I walk, and I talk a lot,” she says. “As I talk to people on the phone and do interviews, I walk around. I also live in New York City and I’m out almost every night, which means I am walking places all the time. Also, when I teach, I walk and talk. I am fortunate that I am very healthy at my age and that I am still doing what I enjoy on a daily basis. This spring I’m teaching a graduate course at Columbia University.”
The vintage enthusiasm in Dr. Ruth’s voice comes through as she describes the course, which will be about family in film, theater, television, and the internet.
“The course is already fully registered,” she says. “And I just finished teaching six years at Yale and Princeton.”
At a time when many octogenarians are taking it easy in retirement, Dr. Ruth subscribes to the theory that keeping up a full, fulfilling schedule doing the things you’ve always loved is the best way to stay mentally sharp and physically young.
“I do a lot of fundraising and that keeps me out,” she says. “And after all these years, I still get pleasure when I open the New York Post and find my name in it.”
And of course, what would a profile of Dr. Ruth be if we didn’t dive into her favorite topic: sex.
Words From the Expert
“One of the best pieces of news I’ve had over my career is that across the country, women have heard the message that they have to take responsibility for their own sexual satisfaction,” she says. “Even the best lover can’t bring her the sexual satisfaction if she doesn’t tell him what her needs are.”
Dr. Ruth realizes that as women age, they go through certain changes that may affect their libido or their confidence, which may lead them to thinking that sex is no longer an option. In her straight-to-the-point way, she is out to dispel that myth. In fact, she wrote an entire book on the topic titled, Dr. Ruth’s Sex After 50.
“There is no evidence that going through menopause means that a woman loses her sex drive,” she says. “Going through menopause will bring many changes to her life, in general, some of which may have a negative effect on her sex life, especially if she is not forewarned and adequately prepared to deal with them. But menopause is not a death sentence to a woman’s sex life by any means.”
Another area where Dr. Ruth likes to buck conventional wisdom has to do with ageism, or the idea that after a certain age, people should just accept that sex will no longer be a part of their lives.
“There are common perceptions about older people held by the general public, even among senior citizens themselves that are just not true,” she says. “One of these is that older people aren’t sexy. This is rubbish. Humans can continue to have and enjoy sex into their nineties. Your sex life is not supposed to come to an end just because you’ve hit a certain age.”
Dr. Ruth says that, to put it delicately, some post-menopausal women don’t enjoy sex as much as they did when they were younger because of some discomfort brought on by the shrinking of tissues in certain areas of the body. The cure: More sex.
“The more women engage in sex, the less severe the symptoms of menopause related to good sexual functioning will be,” she says.
On to the Men
The biggest fear men have when it comes to sexual function as they age can be boiled down to two letters, E.D., as in Erectile Dysfunction. While there are plenty of pills and prescription drugs that are available to help men who suffer from this problem, Dr. Ruth cautions that men should make sure they eliminate other reasons for the loss of the ability to perform before they start taking a drug.
“The number of men who suffer from physically based erectile dysfunction is relatively small,” she says. “Even in older men. And not every one of these needs or is able to take a pill. There are many men who have a problem that is not physical at all, rather it’s psychological. I think the pills can be wonderful if a man is the right candidate for them, but they may not be necessary.”
Psychological issues older men may be dealing with when it comes to sexual performance range from damaged egos, to having an unhealthy body image, to sheer embarrassment that they are unable to perform as they once did and that they no longer have the energy that they once had.
It is of paramount importance that the men experiencing these issues discuss them with the women in their lives. Having open communication is the first step to solving some of these problems. Sometimes simply discussing these topics will lead to solutions. For instance, if a man doesn’t like how he looks, he can start exercising and eat better with the encouragement of his wife. If he’s embarrassed about not being as virile as he once was, his wife can reassure him that she’s had changes too, and that they are okay.
Other times, there may be a physical issue behind lack of sexual function, including heart disease, high blood pressure, or low testosterone.
“In men whose testosterone becomes greatly reduced, many of the same symptoms women have may occur,” Dr. Ruth says. “This includes hot flashes, increased irritability, bone loss, inability to concentrate, and depression, and, on top of those, a diminished sex drive. Some people refer to this as ‘andropause’, as the male sex hormones are referred to as androgens. But whatever you call it, when it happens, it is often best to deal with it both medically and psychologically.”
A New Cause
While Dr. Ruth continues to remain on the front lines of the sex therapy industry, she has recently released a book titled, Dr. Ruth’s Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver. In it, she discusses a myriad of ways that people can handle a loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis without getting overwhelmed.
“The reason I wrote this book is because I have so many friends that have dealt with this dreaded disease,” she says. “I felt that it behooved me to do something to help the caretakers. In this aspect, they have to do something for themselves before they run out of steam. People should not say ‘no’ to their own desires. They should say yes, and take the time to still do things they enjoy.”
She cites many examples, including a physician friend who wanted to retire to take care of his wife, but who she advised to maintain his practice while also being a caregiver. The book has chapters that deal with nearly every aspect of being a caregiver, including chapters titled “How to Help Yourself,” “You Get to Have a Life, Too,” “Dealing with Professional Caregivers,” “When You’re Taking Care of a Spouse,” “Helping Children and Grandchildren Cope,” and more.
Dr. Ruth with Debra Jo Rupp
As always, the aspects of maintaining a healthy sex life are covered as well.
“In some cases, Alzheimer’s patients lose all inhibitions, and either demand sex or demand not to have it,” she says. “A caregiver has to know that is all part of the disease. I actually tell people, if need be, and if they are willing, they should try to have another partner very discretely. Nobody should know. In nursing homes, I would like to make sure that there’s a dating room, with a sign like in a hotel that says do not disturb. There’s a need for caressing and being held at every age.”
From sex to Alzheimer’s, from teaching to writing, America’s sex therapist has advice for everyone.
For more information on Dr. Ruth, please visit: www.drruth.com.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at 1-866-864-3027.
Born in Germany in 1928, Dr. Ruth Westheimer was sent to a children’s home in Switzerland at the age of 10 which became an orphanage for most of the German Jewish students who’d been sent there to escape the Holocaust. She immigrated to the US in 1956 where she obtained her Master’s Degree in Sociology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School of Social Research. In 1970, she received a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.) in the Interdisciplinary Study of the Family from Columbia University Teacher’s College.
She is a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine and in addition to having her own private practice, she frequently lectures at universities across the country and has twice been named “College Lecturer of the Year.” Dr. Westheimer has two children, four grandchildren, and resides in New York City.