a publication of the sexuality and aging consortium at widener university

Enjoying Sexuality in Later Life

Media images imply that sex is a young adult domain, but new research proves age need not be a barrier to sexual fulfillment.

The 2003 AARP Modern Maturity Sexuality Survey found that while the frequency of sexual activity decreases with age, more than 50 % of older men and women with regular partners have sexual intercourse weekly; more than 70 % have it at least once or twice a month. Approximately two-thirds of the older adults polled were extremely or very satisfied with their physical relationships.  More than 50% of men and 85% of women report illness has not impaired their sex lives–even at age 75 and older.

The survey results did not surprise Beverly Whipple, PhD, professor emerita of Rutgers University and member of the Consortium’s Advisory Board.

“Many older people were always having sex.  Activity with partners or by themselves is nothing new, but we’re more open about it.  That’s happened since Viagra. Some older adults are out of the closet talking about sexuality.
Prior to Viagra, only 10 % of men with erectile dysfunction even went in for treatment,” says Whipple.

Whipple is highly regarded in the field of sexuality research, and her groundbreaking work includes the discovery of the G spot, a sexually responsive area felt through the anterior vaginal wall.  Many of her workshops focus on teaching seniors and others to view sexual activity in a broader, more fulfilling manner.

“We have a focus in our society on vaginal intercourse, but I do workshops on intimacy that focus on everything but the genitals. Gina Ogden and I created and published an extragenital matrix that helps people map areas of their body that are pleasurable, which could include a big toe or hand holding,” says Whipple.
Whipple advises seniors to toss out the assumption that satisfying sexual activity must end in orgasm.

“We’re so goal-oriented in our society that we view sexual activity as a staircase, with orgasm at the top.  People tend to go from the floor to the top step, ignoring anything between.  I teach people to see sex as a circle.  Any activity on the circle can be an end in itself, even if it’s kissing or hugging.  It’s very life affirming,” says Whipple.

Free of the demands of work and raising families, seniors may find themselves ready to reconnect with their sexuality. Expert advice can be helpful.Health issues such as heart attacks, cancer, menopause, alcoholism, and erectile dysfunction can impact an older adult’s sexuality. In addition, many aging adults may experience intimacy on unfamiliar terrain as the result of a divorce or a loss of a partner. When seniors experience problems with sexual interest or function, they should
visit their health care provider.

“The first step is to ensure they’re not having problems that could gum up the plumbing, like high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, or medications can affect sexual activity,” says Whipple.

The second step is to talk to an educator or therapist. The Consortium’s member directory is a great place to start.

One of the important things heterosexual women can learn from a sex counselor or therapist is that their male partner’s erectile dysfunction is most likely unrelated to a decrease in sexual attraction. “Women tend to feel it’s their fault, but 80% of erectile dysfunction is organic and not related to their not being attractive or because their partner has someone else,” says Whipple.

Seniors who have lost their partners may find it helpful to talk with others in a similar situation, Whipple says, and if they find a new partner, they must educate themselves about sexually transmitted infections so they can protect themselves and their partners.

According to SEICUS, since the inception of the AIDS epidemic, approximately 10% of all AIDS cases have occurred among people over 50. Over 50,000 Americans in this age group
currently live with AIDS, and nearly 50,000 persons 50 years of age or older have died from the complications of HIV.

The AARP Modern Maturity Sexuality Study showed that a high percentage of older adults receive no medical treatment for chronic conditions affecting sex and general health. Blood pressure, arthritis and other conditions can affect sexual expression and satisfaction. Lifestyle also has a significant impact on sexual behavior. Older adults living with their adult children or in long-term care facilities may be restricted in their ability to express themselves sexually.

“Seniors have to be candid about their needs with their families.  We often tend to think of older people interested in sex as dirty old men and women, and they come to see themselves that way,” says Whipple.

“I know of a nursing home that had a privacy room, but the adult children who paid for their parents’ expenses didn’t want their parents to be using the room. Sexuality is a normal part of life, but it’s usually the children who make it a problematic issue,” says Whipple.

What You Can Do

Sexuality researcher Beverly Whipple, Ph.D., offers the following tips to seniors seeking to enhance their sexual functioning and satisfaction:
Make a weekly date to socialize with your partner. “Do something alone together that shows you enjoy each other’s company,” says Whipple.

Increase intimacy by exchanging roles. Use your partner’s verbal and non-verbal expressions and communication style, and be open to learning from the experience. Have your partner communicate to you, using your words and style.

Be open, honest, and communicative. “Talk about what you like, what you want, and what’s important to you,” says Whipple.

Don’t just say you love your partner; rather, say what it is about your partner that you love.

Be aware of what you want, acknowledge it, and communicate it very specifically to your partner.

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