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November '13

Sexuality and Aging

Peter J. Naus

Although presumably there is more openness about sexuality than in the past, the sexuality of older persons has not received much attention, and if it is considered at all the tone of the conversation is often jocular. There appears to be still a fair amount of ambivalence, if not outright discomfort, about the topic. It is not surprising then that relatively little research has been conducted and that lack of information or misinformation abound. The purpose of the talk was to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge and to correct some of the misinformation.

The talk began with a brief summary of the major findings of research on sexuality and aging and was followed by a discussion of the factors that influence changes in sexuality over time. It concluded with a few suggestions for revising our view of the sexuality of older persons.

There is much evidence that sexual interest and activity decrease over time. There are also indications that the meaning of sexuality shifts in the course of life and that non-genital sexuality—touching, caressing and cuddling—become more important. This may reflect a more general shift from the sexual to the emotional aspects of a relationship, to such feelings as security, loyalty and companionship.

The changes are gradual, unless special events occur such as, for instance, illness or the loss of a partner. There is also much diversity among older people in terms of their sexuality. Some people stop being sexually interested or active relatively early in life whereas others remain sexually active into their eighties or nineties.

The factors shaping the changes over time in sexuality are biological, psychological, interpersonal or societal in nature.

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The biological factors refer in particular to the changes with age in sexual anatomy and physiology such as erectile difficulties in men and problems with vaginal lubrication in women. Both genders experience a decrease in the intensity of orgasm as well. These changes are a part of normal aging. However, they cannot explain by themselves the decline in sexual interest and activity with advancing years. There are other factors at play such as illness, surgical interventions and side effects of medication. They also may exacerbate normal problems with erection or lubrication. Erectile dysfunction (ED), which is an inability to get an erection or to maintain one long enough for sexual intercourse to be successful, is not due to aging per se but to the extraneous events just mentioned. ED is treatable, though not in all cases.

From a psychological point of view, a person’s sexual history is relevant as far as predicting what his or her sexuality will be like in old age. If one’s experience of sexuality has been positive all along, one is likely to remain sexually interested and active when one is older. One’s mental health is relevant in this regard as well; not surprisingly, struggling with depression tends to dampen one’s sexual interest.

Interpersonal factors, specifically relationship factors, are also part of the mix of influences on sexuality in the later years. Couples that have been able to avoid the staleness and boredom that threaten lasting relationships tend to be more inclined to continue their sex life into old age, although it may not be as passionate as it was before.

The impact of societal factors on the sexuality of older persons is underestimated. Sexuality is not just a biological given, but also a profoundly social and cultural reality. What we think, feel and do sexually is affected by the commonly accepted sexual practices in our society; that is, by commonly accepted ways of thinking, feeling and acting sexually. Our society has yet to be supportive of the sexuality of older people; there is much ambivalence, if not outright discomfort, about it. The dominant representations of sexuality involve young, heterosexual, couples. It’s only recently, and rather hesitantly, that sexuality within same sex relationships has been acknowledged and portrayed. Standard sexual scenarios abound on TV, but portrayal of sexual interest on the part of older couples is still rare and usually intended for the amusement of the viewer. Though many older people are able to ignore this lack of acceptance of their sexuality, it may lead others to disengage sexually, especially if they have to contend with some of the other impediments to sexual expression mentioned before.

This may well change with the aging of the Baby Boom generation. Baby Boomers were at the forefront of the so-called sexual revolution that started in the sixties and they appear much more assertive than the current generation of older persons in claiming the right to lead their life, including their sex life, as they see fit.

In the meantime, it would be helpful to start revising our view of sexuality and come to see it as first and foremost a form of play. Sexual activities, whether sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual expression, have an intrinsic meaning; that is, one that lies in the activities themselves. Sex is foremost about play and pleasure and therefore can be enjoyed by young and old, men and women, rich and poor. Looking at sex in this way has a number of advantages. To begin with, it would help us adopt a more lighthearted view of the sexuality of older persons. As the gerontologist, Eugene Thomas, proposed, sex in the later years is like eating popcorn, not essential, but one of the pleasures of life. Genuine play is for fun and not for proving anything. Another characteristic of genuine play is that no matter how much one enjoys playing, one can take it or leave it. Moreover, real play, however exciting at first, becomes boring if it is repeated often enough without any variation. Genuine play has rules, but they tend to be flexible and of the players own making. Changing our sexual practices to have them resemble genuine play might go a long way in helping to combat the discomfort around the sexuality of older persons.

By way of final comment and conclusion, we are reminded that the value of old age is not to be found in how similar to earlier stages in life it can be made to look. Old age has its own advantages, its own satisfactions, its own rewards. There are no grounds for claiming that sexuality is meaningless in old age, but neither for claiming that its meaning depends on how closely it resembles one’s sexuality earlier in life. Old age can be fulfilling if one remains sexually interested and active, but equally fulfilling if, for good reason, one is not. 

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Peter's Powerpoint Presentationcan be found in the memorable Topics Section of this Website.  The link to memorable Topics is found in the Navigation bar on the left side of this page.

Editor's Note: Special thanks to Peter for writing the summary of his presentation.  I appreciated him doing it as I didn't want to put my imterpretation of this subject into a summary!!  

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