Having served as cartoon fodder for decades, middle-aged love is finally getting some good press.

Although interest in carnal love is well-established among the gray-templed set, finding time is high on the problem list. As William Masters and Virginia Johnson acknowledge in The Pleasure Bond, business, career and family goals have a way of insidiously creeping into the gap between men and women. This gap tends toward Grand Canyon proportions in mid life.

"After a week of Blue and Gold dinners, prime-time TV, board meetings and the sixth-grade sleep-over," sighs 38-year-old Gayle, "I feel more unconscious than sensuous."

In middle age, however, some find the flame of love that once fired passion suddenly can turn into a blowtorch.

One woman, determined to get more than just "half-time" attention, confronted her husband before the video screen wearing nothing but her son's scrimmage helmet and pads. After some lively repartee, an ingenious compromise was worked out, demonstrating that various types of communication come into play on the marital scene.

Since women usually prefer verbal "massages" and men tend to translate thought into action, conversation gaps can swallow a well-meaning couple as they mature. Those youthful male-female heart throbs--the "strong, silent" boy paired with the loquacious girl--can, with years, turn into heart thuds.

To keep love alive and well, a couple must make sure they have distraction-free opportunities.

One middle-aged duo, realizing a need for time alone, finally arranged to have their three nocturnally-active children away for the weekend. After an elegant dinner, followed by a few drinks with friends, they returned home at last. That's when one fell into "a profound stage-four sleep," reports the disappointed partner, "awakening at 9 the next morning with a vague sense of having forgotten something."

Though waning stamina and children who never sleep are problems for the amorous married couple, consider the single middle-aged lover, who has these and more:

Carl, a trim, divorced 45-year-old school administrator, tells of finally encountering a likeable woman his age. When she suggested going to dinner with her son and his date, Carl's libidinous dream of a great evening came crashing down.

"I wasn't about to double-date with her son and his lady, even if they were a fun couple," he grumbled. "That idea turned me on like a bucket of ice water."

But love in mid-life is not all narcoleptic climax or inter-generational mis-matching. The good news is that more people know what they want in life, the sexual drive becomes harnessed and women, say the experts, tend to be more "responsive." Some are so responsive they forget the statistical realities of finding an able "co-respondent."

Such was the case of Brenda, a 47-year-old teacher who recalls meeting a Paul Newman look-alike when he moved into the apartment next door.

"I was sure he was attracted to me, as our chance meetings became more frequent. Even our dogs were friends." Although he had several visits from a younger woman, "I sensed that my new friend was trapped--that he needed someone with my acumen, my finesse.

"One day he called to say he wanted to see me. I met him at the door literally glowing with lust. That's when he asked me," she recounts, voice rising, "to feed his dog while they went on VACATION!"

As women become more outspoken on love, the "new" woman may be projected as overstating her case. Men in their middle years are no longer behaving like "studs," says Clinton clinical psychologist Sheldon Freud (his real name), and many long for a certain type of female sublety. Even though he's physically attracted, says Freud, nothing turns a man off quicker than to be accosted by a female "cum laude graduate" of an assertiveness course.

Looks and their loss over the years can also become an obstacle to romance. As the aging process advances, a woman must typically wage war against Sag and Cellulite, those demons that can bring a once-proud body to its knees.

"Forget the image of the gallant knight in shining armor," advises Barbara Berson in her book, Survival Guide for the Suddenly Single, because "you're no fairy princess either." To adopt a realistic attitude, she notes, is the hallmark of maturity and enjoying a drink with a less-than-perfect man is eminently preferable to social atrophy.

Health, another concern of middle years, can be positively affected by sexual activity. Under the "right" circumstances, doctors claim, it can serve as beneficial exercise for the aging heart. If conditions allow for the gleeful abandon of a guilt-free conscience, medics say the risk of heart attack is minimal. (It's the fear-filled peccadillo that is most likely to bring out the rescue squad.)

But the weakened heart is only part of nature's sabotage to the mating rites of the gracefully aging. It was when her "crows feet had turned to pterodactyl tracks," the late Judith Wax wrote Starting in the Middle, a personal account of middle age in middle-class Chicago. Her book describes a pair of silver-haired lovers stymied in their search for an apartment because they'd forgotten their bifocals and were unable to read the want ads. Proving that "love will out," they purchased a magnifying glass and, with admirable savoir faire, continued the hunt.

Other disabilities may creep up with age to haunt the ardent suitor. One case in which the body dealt its own coup de grace occurred when an Englishman, while making love to a married woman in a sports car, slipped a disc. After being immobilized for hours, reports John Train in True Remarkable Occurrences, the two were finally freed by firemen who had to cut apart their hastily chosen love nest as bystanders watched in awe.

Calamities aside, love after 40 is often richly enhanced by an increased sensitivity.

Says Nora in Adeline McConnell and Beverly Anderson's Single After Fifty, "When love comes later in life you're more careful with it. If someone sends you flowers you appreciate them deeply, instead of saying, as you might have done as a girl, 'Why didn't he send them last week?'