a publication of the sexuality and aging consortium at widener university

Sexuality and Aging: The Facts

This article was first published in Renaissance Magazine, New Jersey Foundation for Aging, 21(1), 2014

By Melanie Davis, PhD, CSE and Robin Goldberg-Glen, PhD, MSW
Co-Presidents, Sexuality and Aging Consortium at Widener University

In 2012, a 30-second video public service announcement was released on social media to promote safer sex for older adults. It shows about 10 fully clothed older adults on a fully lit, empty theater stage, laughing as they demonstrate the sometimes funny ways bodies can fit together. Yellow letters note that in Florida alone, sexually transmitted infections – STIs –increased among seniors by 71% in just 10 years. The statistic is followed by, “There are many ways to do it, but only one way to do it safely. Use a condom.”
The problem isn’t limited to Florida: Nationwide, between 2006 and 2010, the rates of STIs among adults over 55 rose by up to 135%.
The video, embedded online at SaferSex4Seniors.org, garnered more than 1 million views and international media attention that often reflected negative reactions like this one from an advertising industry expert: “The poses in this PSA really make me uncomfortable!  Don’t make me think of grandma that way!”
But why not?  Why is it taboo for people to think of older adults being sexually active?  The negative media response to the PSA reflected an ageist culture that grants younger people sexual privilege. Younger adults are seen as inherently more attractive and desirable, more sexually fit, and more deserving of pleasure than those of us who are over 50.
Age-related sexual privilege hurts everyone, from the 24-year-old celebrity getting Botox before wrinkles appear, to adults in their 40s who fear they only have a few good sexual years left. It hurts seniors who don’t see people like ourselves in romantic or erotic films. It hurts us when healthcare providers assume we’re not having sex and, therefore, don’t need information about sexual health and satisfaction. It hurts when lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender seniors are ridiculed, abused or neglected by caregivers who don’t understand or accept sexual identities that may differ from their own.
Part of the work that the Sexuality and Aging Consortium does is to train administrators and staff of long-term care facilities about the need to ensure the sexual rights of residents. To get the point across, we often show a film called The Heart Has No Wrinkles, which tells the story of May and Derek, who live in a care facility. When a young nurse sees them displaying affection and sharing love poems, she makes fun of them and barges into their rooms without knocking, despite their pleas for privacy. As noted by the film’s narrator,
No matter how vibrant or beautiful they may have been once, the aged are often pitied, patronized and desexualized. They are often left out of decisions that impact their lives, and those decisions may result in a loss of independence, privacy, social support, and sexual expression.
May’s and Derek’s experience may be painfully familiar to you, or to a someone you know, because the attitudes illustrated in the film are reflected in the words that are too often associated with people who are old: ancient, out of date, broken down, impaired, enfeebled, exhausted, inactive, creaky, fossil, decrepit, rickety, over the hill, senile, dried up, done.
As older adults, we’re not “done” simply by virtue of age. We have much to share, to experience, and to enjoy. We have a sexual identity, beliefs, values, memories and feelings, and we may look forward to enjoying sexual activity, solo or partnered, well into our 80s or 90s.
The Sexuality and Aging Consortium is taking the lead in advocacy for the sexual education, health and rights of adults in mid- and older age. We offer workshops and resources for consumers, and we train professionals, paraprofessionals, and graduate students about issues including age-related changes in sexual function and pleasure, sexuality and dementia, sexual abuse, sexuality policies and training; and the rights of sexual minorities.
The Hebrew Home for the Aged in New York is another pioneer in this field, having developed the first policy to outline residents’ rights to privacy, sexual expression, and intimate relationships. It also instituted a comprehensive sex education program for staff and created a training video that was distributed long-term care facilities in New York.
You can help, too:

  • Call attention to ageist stereotypes and assumptions about older adult sexuality – one way is to explain why you find certain comments, cartoons, or jokes offensive.
  • If you have questions about your sexuality, don’t be embarrassed to talk to your healthcare provider.
  • If you or your partner need a long-term care facility, ask about their policies on sexual expression (e.g., can you lock the bedroom door for privacy? Can you have a double bed that offers room for cuddling? If you or your partner has dementia, will you retain your sexual rights?)

Another important way to help is to stop using those negative synonyms for old that were listed earlier in this article. Instead, talk about yourself and your older adult peers in words that reflect express the wonderful things about older adults who are: mature, seasoned, experienced, honorable, versed, established, practiced, venerable, well-traveled, wise, wanted, sensual, sexual, and loved.

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