Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles on sexuality and aging, co-produced by the National
Sexuality Resource Center and Rewire. Check back in the coming weeks for more on seniors and sexuality.
My mom turns sixty-nine this
fall, and she recently asked if I could turn my communications expertise
to a more familial project: updating her personal profile on a popular
dating site. As she gears up to meet men for Coke dates in the mall,
I geared up for how to have "the talk" that I never got from her.
How do I cover the basics, like condom use and STI prevention that I
wished I’d heard from her as a teen-and how do I cover topics like
vaginal dryness, communication, and pleasure (topics I would have liked,
but maybe not from mom)? I wish to be as bold as masturbation guru Betty
Dodson, who, the story goes, once asked her mother, How are your
From birth to death, we are
all sexual beings. We have a hard enough time acknowledging this when
it comes to children, but when it comes to aging adults, the silence
is deafening. And deadly: 60 percent of unmarried women ages fifty-eight
to ninety-three report that they didn’t use a condom the last time they
had sex, and the CDC reports that 15 percent of new HIV cases are among
people over fifty. The number of adults sixty-five and older will reach
seventy-two million by 2030-and, according to current statistics,
about 46 percent of them won’t be married; 7 to 10 percent will identify
as LGBT. That’s a lot of people. More importantly, that’s a lot
of people having sex: Stacey Lindau’s groundbreaking research on sexuality
and aging showed that 53 percent of those aged sixty-five to seventy-four
are sexually active. My mom is going to have a lot of Coke dates.
Scary statistics aside, sexuality
has a lot more to offer elders than risk: healthy sexuality contributes
to quality of life, and aging adults can see real health benefits from
sexual enjoyment – whether that happens alone or with a partner. Regular
sex is believed to stimulate the immune system, lower stress, and improve
sleep. According to a Scottish study, folks having regular sex look
seven to twelve years younger than their peers. And it’s a lot cheaper
(with less recovery time) than plastic surgery or Botox.
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Aging adults also have special
needs when it comes to sexuality. Erection concerns and vaginal dryness
are common among elders, and a penetration-focused sexual discourse
leaves many potential avenues for sexual fulfillment unexplored. Assisted
living facilities are not always supportive of sexual expression amongst
residents. Dementia, as well as cognitive and physical impairment, can
pose real barriers to issues such as consent, healthy decision-making,
and sexual desire. Stigma and shame from family, caregivers and doctors,
who get "grossed out" by the idea of older adults having sex, leave
the concerns of aging adults invisible and untended. Separation and
death of a partner leave boomer-plus adults willing – but ill-prepared – to
enter a new world of dating and relationships. LGBT elders face special
concerns of isolation and oppression as they grow older. For all these
reasons, aging adults are left with few resources, little information,
and a paucity of supportive healthcare.
As part of our mission to promote
lifelong healthy sexuality, the National
Sexuality Resource Center
has made sexuality and aging a priority issue: We are currently conducting
an assessment of the sexuality needs of aging adults in assisted living
facilities, leading presentations on sexuality and aging at national
conferences including AARP, and working to include the special concerns
of LGBT elders in sexuality dialogues.
Over the next weeks the National
Sexuality Resource Center will co-produce a series on sexuality and
aging, in partnership with Rewire. In our efforts to promote
positive, healthy sexuality – not just disease prevention or risk avoidance – you
will find articles that discuss sexuality in all its complexity. Relationship
singles, dating, and relationship issues; Clitoral
Truth author Rebecca
Chalker offers sexual health tips. Lara Riscol will take a look at the
problems posed by Alzheimer’s and sexuality, and sexuality pioneer
Peggy Brick will introduce her groundbreaking work on sex education
for elders. To finish things off, Meika Loe takes a look at how Viagra
puts extra pressure on men’s sexual performance.
On his ninety-fifth birthday,
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes saw an attractive woman
and mused, "Oh, to be seventy again." Our potential for healthy
sexuality extends as far as our lifespan; we all deserve the information,
resources, and support to fully live up to our potential. Not to mention
a few, good, healthy orgasms.