a publication of the sexuality and aging consortium at widener university

My Mother Did What with Whom?

My mother did what with whom?  Understanding Human Sexuality in the Golden Years– Honoring the Whole Person throughout the lifetime.

By Katherine A. Forsythe, MSW
Welcome to the new sexual revolution. As champions of older adults, we can pat ourselves on the back for actively affirming the whole person throughout the lifespan. We talk about wellness and healthy lifestyle, and long-term care facilities knock themselves out to create a home-like environment for residents. In the midst of all the loving, efficient, productive support we give, however, we may be missing one of the biggest affirmations of all – sensitively supporting the expression of sexuality late in life.

Sexuality means, simply: who we are as men and women, and how that plays out for each of us, throughout the lifetime. We are born as sexual beings and remain so until we die. There are statistics to back up our need to articulate our sexuality well into later years, but we don’t need research to tell us. If you have any doubts, take a look at residents getting ready for a social event. Consider the many ways of expressing gender: most obviously, women don their best jewelry and makeup, and men wear their best “duds”. Flirting happens as much at 90 as it did at 19.

What do the professionals who serve and strengthen the rights of older adults need to know about sexuality late it life? As men and women enter older years, they encounter stereotyping about how older adults should act as sexual beings.  To add insult to injury, society generally treats seniors as sexless. A cane or poor eyesight has no correlation to the sexual thoughts our residents are thinking. Nor is a walker an indication of how our elder residents see themselves, no matter where they are in the life cycle. Last month, a 92-year-old woman, hunched over in a wheelchair, announced to me with great angst that she loathed looking in the mirror. Where was that attractive 35 year old that her mind’s eye sees every day? Sensitivity to that loss is essential.

Consider these facts about sexuality and aging from recent studies:

  • Reporting from all adults age 65+ (up to 100 yrs): 25% report having an active sex life.
  • Reporting from adults in assisted living, cognitively intact but physically dependent:
    –90% of residents have sexual thoughts and fantasies.
    –8% report sexual activity in one month.
    –17% expressed desire for sexual activity.
  • Reporting about adults with mild dementia: 17% of men and women are observed to have increased libido (hypersexuality).
  • Adults late in life are interested in being sexual, in spite of societal labels. What does that mean?  It’s not just the sexual act that gives a person his/her sexuality.  The expression of sexuality (sexual expression) at 80 years, has 7 components (see Wheel of Sexuality at 80):
    –Life Wisdom – positive and negative lessons in sexuality learned throughout the lifetime
    –Intimacy – the need to be close
    –Sensuality – connecting to sexuality through all 5 senses (looking beyond touch for enjoyment)
    –Physical Sexuality – respecting and using anatomy to satisfy the biological sexual urge
    –Body Image – body self concept
    –Sexual Identity – individual articulation of sexuality
    –Reproductive Health – medical matters

Note that the largest influencer on sexuality late in life is life wisdom. Long-term care residents have had a lifetime of learning who they are supposed to be. Some choose to be physically sexually active until the day they die. Others forego traditional sexual activity late in life. The hallmark of the truly caring professional is one who discovers the history that the individual older adult has brought with him/her into this later period of life and how to honor and support that heritage, including sexuality.

The joys of sexual expression are many. The barriers often present insurmountable hurdles to seniors, however. Lack of partner and no privacy are just the beginning of a long list. In my experience, the critical deterrent to sexual expression is attitude of staff and administration. At home, family attitude often governs this difficult topic. What’s happening here? Too often, the values of a loved one, or a staff member, does not align with that of the older adult. Critical examination of the elder’s values – and where it conflicts with the professional’s private values or the values of the community – is necessary to care for the whole person.

The new frontier in championing the rights of older adults is honoring freedom of sexual expression for older adults. Let’s all be ambassadors for residents around this delicate topic by deepening sensitivity and educating ourselves about a natural human condition, enhancing our care level for the extraordinary older adults we serve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Design by Hoverboard Media