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Intimacy in Old Age: An Unusual Photo Essay

Isadora Kosofsky, an award-winning photographer, was 18 when she first noticed a trio of older people — two women and a man — on the streets of Los Angeles. Something about their relationship struck her, and with their permission, she started to photograph them. The resulting photo documentary, “The Three,” tells the story of Will, 84, Jeanie 82 and Adina 90, “individuals bound by their relationships” the photographer says.

Indeed, it is their relationship — what appears to be a romance between Will and each of the two women — that makes Kosofsky’s photographs especially striking and moving. It’s rare to see representations of older people expressing their sexuality, and even though there’s sadness in these images, the photographer has not shied away from capturing their moments of intimacy.

There’s a common conception in our age-segregated culture that younger people have little interest in people much older than them, but for Kosofsky, age is meaningless. “I don’t view my subjects as senior citizens,” she says. “When I photograph them, I view them as I would individuals of any age range. Going into a project about individuals who happen to be older and typecasting it as documentation of aging, just because the group is classified as seniors, does not allow for an exploration of broader themes.”

The three lived in different retirement homes. How they came to know each other is unclear, but while we don’t know a lot about the relationship between the three, there’s much to be gleaned from the images themselves. We see glimpses of desolation mixed with tenderness. Some images explore sexual intimacy between Will and Jeanie. And Kosofsky allows us to see hints of Will’s emotional struggles — his passion, anger and sadness.

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The two women’s children cut off all contact between their mothers and Will while Kosofsky was working on the project. “The adult children feared for their parents’ safety when the two women’s memory became impaired and Will’s mental health began to deteriorate,” the photographer says. She also noted discomfort about the relationship among the staff at the retirement homes. “The first nursing aide…defined the relationship as a “threesome,” but it wasn’t taken seriously. Most of the senior residents of the facility did not embrace the trio because of its unconventional nature.”

Kosofsky’s remarkable photo series raises questions about aging and sexuality in our society. Who will be making the decisions about our intimate lives as we age? For older adults who lack the capacity to make such decisions, elder abuse laws address many of those issues. But there’s a fine line between protecting sexual freedoms and restricting someone else’s rights due to your personal beliefs or discomfort.

I plan to start the conversation with my adult sons. I want them to understand that sex is something I plan to enjoy for years to come and that it may not look like the traditional relationship model of a monogamous couple. I need them to be accepting and to support whatever decisions I make. I expect them to advocate for my sexual rights when I’m less capable of doing so—and I want them to understand the importance of intimacy across one’s lifespan — mine and theirs.

To see all the photographs in Isadora Kosofsky’s “The Three” series, click here

Photos: Isadora Kosofsky

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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11 comments
  • Pam bonanno
    REPLY

    I guess as I watch my self star through the horrible no low sex drive unless I am on hurt and then you have the issue of your spouse who is 66 and shows less interest sexually in me,but he gets on websites viewing young sex sites and claims I don’t keep him aroused,he claims it’s me and then he’ll say it’s him,but yet he shows a lot of hidden interest in communicating with 20s and 30 yr olds.ive gone about aye with hardly no romance.im a 58 yr old 100 lb, wife that has undergone cosmetic surgery to look the best I can,but it seems like the arousement is gone.is this normal.i even tell him if you r always honest and desire a younger woman,just communicate with me,he gets mad and says I’m only wanting her if you are involved,but if I don’t keep you aroused why would you want me involved,I think it’s guilt and he really is afraid he will hurt my feelings if he’s honest,but the fact is sneaking after you been married 13 yrs is dishonest.he says I only need you,then why are you talking to each other,he says I just look at them.i think I’ve gotten real with myself I feel his rejection,he won’t touch me or even kiss me.hes bored and he can’t be honest,I will want him to be happy but he’s going to quit telling me it’s for me,it’s not what I want and he will hide and respond when I’m not around,does he not desire me,since sex and love are not the same.iit hurts me I’m not enough,and I can tell he wants sex with another,what should I do.

  • Deb
    REPLY

    Is there any joy in this trio? They appear to be without much emotion.
    Everyone needs to be loved.
    I hope this relationship gives them joy and love.

  • T.O. Weller
    REPLY

    Walker, thank you for sharing this. The photos are so powerful. Yes, society must start looking beyond the container of “senior” to see the individual experience regardless of age.

  • Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com
    REPLY

    Hi Walker! Interesting perspective. It’s clear that all three of these people are connected and I say why not? I suppose that I take it for granted that my needs and wishes as I grow older will be as free as they are now but your post reminds me that I shouldn’t. Of course, as long as I live in California I do feel that there is more tolerance for alternative lifestyles than there would be in other areas of the country. Still, it should never be assumed that others will agree. I think that is why I’m starting to realize at my age (60) that I need to start having strong intentions about my life as I age. And yes, I’m writing about that on my own blog too! Thanks Walker, for the insights! ~Kathy

    • Walker Thornton
      REPLY

      Kathy,
      I think the tolerance for differing lifestyles is better in California. But, remember this story is about 3 adults in California–the issue here seemed mostly to be that the adult children had the power to stop it. We lose a bit of autonomy when we age–the key, as I see it, is to communicate with our own children about what we want and expect from old age.

  • KCLAnderson (Karen)
    REPLY

    What a gorgeous idea…and I love how you write about it. It was when I was caring for my grandmother (I was her legal guardian) that I started to consider her sexuality through the lens of something other than I had viewed it most of my life (due to the way my mother looked at it). In fact, I am writing a book about it.

    I am heartened that sexuality in all its permutations and continuums is being addressed without as much baggage as it used to be…and we still have a long way to go.

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