Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany, the woman now known as “Dr. Ruth” saw her father arrested by Nazis and said 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 said.
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 said. “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.”
Whether they are young or old, most singles would like to be doubles. What would Dr. Ruth recommend 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 said.
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,” said Dr. Ruth. “Very often, a problem is something physical.”
“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!”
As for the personal? “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 if one does remain alone and does not find a new partner? “People have an obligation to themselves,” Dr. Ruth said. “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, said Dr. Ruth, includes adult children. “They will never understand,” she said. “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. Said 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’s or father’s companion makes life easier.
The experience of being a senior — she is 84 and a widow — is one Dr. Ruth shares with many in her audience. Yet, she is clearly a work in progress. This summer, she presented Vin d’Amore, a California-bottled line of low-alcohol wines,replete with her picture on the label.
“I tell people to drink a little, then have sex,” Dr. Ruth said.