Consortium President Peggy Brick was recently honored as an Age4Aging Champion, by the Age4Aging Network in Washington, DC. She was nominated for the award by Consortium member Susie Wilson. This article was written by Phil Nash, of Age4Aging.
When Peggy Brick, 83, starts a new sex-ed class for people over 55, she leads off with a joke. Here’s one:
Sadie and Bill, now up in their years, are going to bed. Usually, they doze off quickly. Tonight, Sadie is feeling romantic. “Bill, sometimes you used to hold my hand before we went to sleep.” Bill takes Sadie’s hand, squeezes gently, then rolls over. “Bill, sometimes you used to kiss me on the cheek.” Bill leans over and gives Sadie a peck on the cheek and again rolls away. “Bill, sometimes you used to nuzzle my neck and give it a little bite.” Suddenly Bill throws off the covers and jumps to his feet. “Bill, where are you going?” asks Sadie. Bill answers, “To get my teeth!”
For people 50+, sex education is no longer about the birds and bees. It’s often about learning how to talk about sex without being embarrassed. Sometimes it’s about unlearning useless notions about sexual rights and wrongs, do’s and don’ts. And, for many, it is about how to experience pleasure and intimacy after bodily changes or the loss of a partner.
“In my classes, I try to get participants talking about the past, present and future of their sex lives,” says Brick. “I encourage them to think about how many of their ideas about sex are still appropriate or useful. Then we get them to identify their own issues and ask questions.” Brick’s sex-ed classes for older adults are modeled on an interactive curriculum she developed when she taught human sexuality to teenagers earlier in her career. To break the ice, she asks participants to submit anonymous questions in advance for the whole class to talk about.
Today, Peggy Brick is a trailblazer in the field of older adult sexuality. She began her first “encore” after retiring from teaching high school as the education director at Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. Then she retired again and began focusing on sex-ed for older people. “I took what I already knew and developed a whole new agenda.” But the common theme in effective sex education for young or old alike is communication.
Training Sex Educators
Four years ago, Brick and some of her sexuality educator colleagues formed the Sexuality and Aging Consortium which has since become an educational outreach initiative of the Widener University Graduate Program in Human Sexuality, one of the nation’s leading academic training centers for sex educators. The Consortium has four focus areas:
Brick is herself the author and co-author of several sexuality education manuals, including two addressing older adults. In 2003, she wrote “New Expectations: Sexuality Education for Mid- and Later Life” published by SIECUS. Later, she started teaching sexuality education classes at her local branch of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Then, in 2009, she and colleagues revised the earlier manual and gave it a new name: “Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter: 30 Sex Ed Lessons for Adults Only” published by Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey.
Turning Focus to Long-Term Care Professionals
In January of this year, she spearheaded a two-day conference for long-term care professionals called “A Person-Centered Approach to Sexuality and Intimacy in Long-Term Care Facilities.” “It’s very important to encourage policy development in long-term care facilities,” says Brick. “The issue that always comes up is if a resident has the cognitive ability to consent to a sexual relationship. Many people working in these facilities are young and just don’t understand what is normal and healthy for older people.”
Brick says long-term care facilities walk a fine line between preserving an individual’s rights to private sexual choices versus the potential for exploitation. Policies help frame the issue, but Brick also sees a need to educate staff, administrators, family members and ombudsmen. A curriculum is taking shape in her mind, although she’s not sure about writing yet another manual. Still, the issue is timely. “The baby boom generation is going to demand a different kind of nursing and assisted-living environment that respects their ability to have relationships and privacy.”
Additional Research is Needed
Research is the unexplored frontier of older adult sexuality. A Penn State researcher did a post-completion email survey of participants in one of Brick’s Osher classes. The anonymous responses reported improved sex-related communications with partners, children, and greater acceptance of others’ points of view. But does the change last? No one knows.
“Isn’t it shocking that we don’t have any research at all on this?” The good news is that 15-20 graduate students in Widener University’s Human Sexuality Program have affiliated with the Sexuality and Aging Consortium and are working to integrate “older sexuality” into their academic portfolios. “The Consortium is a catalyst to stimulate thinking about this,” says Brick.
What’s Up Next?
Brick is involved in planning a two-day seminar on September 23 and 24 called “Sexuality, Intimacy and Aging: What Every Professional Needs to Know”. Fifteen workshops are slated for the first day. Day two is devoted to a SilverSAR® (Sexuality Attitude Reassessment), an interactive, multimedia approach to sensitizing professionals to older adult sexuality.
The future of older-adult sexuality education isn’t clear to Brick. Online education is the direction of the future, she acknowledges. But it has its limitations. “Learning online is good for factual information,” she says. “I am so committed to the idea that sexuality education is about people communicating with each other.” She sees a bright future for programs like those she conducts at the Osher Institute. “I can see the kind of work I do there growing because people love it.”