a publication of the sexuality and aging consortium at widener university

The Times, They are A-Changin’ (Bob Dillon, 1970)… or Are They?

By Katherine Forsythe, MSW (www.getasecondwind.com www.katherineforsythe.com )

Recently, I lost a good friend, Clyde Miller, MD (psychiatry), who spent much of his professional life campaigning for the sexual rights of older adults. He was 93 – and still seeing patients – when he died. His wife graciously gave me his professional scrap book of articles and notes about sex and aging, hoping that I and my colleagues might build on his work and research.

As I meandered through the pages of loose papers, I stumbled upon a UPI press release from a presentation about the challenges of older adults in residential communities – and sexual expression. I was certain that it had been written recently as it directly reflected many of the issues and challenges for older adults that we address every day. Here’s a sampling of concerns. Recognize these issues?

  • Middle aged children with prudish attitudes make sex after 60 difficult if not impossible for parents confined to nursing homes.
  • Many adult children in their 40s consider sex “immoral” for their parents. Why? Older people don’t do “that”; embarrassment that parents are still sexual beings;  fear of losing inheritance; concern that older adults suffer from inability to make their own personal choices.
  • Some SNFs have created “recreation rooms” for sexual privacy – and then had to dismantle them because the financially responsible adult (adult child, conservator, or attorney) objected.
  • Seniors (in communities without policies supporting sexuality) become so fearful of repercussions that it affects their already fragile concern about performance and attractiveness. In turn, this affects their desire and ability.

The “widow and widower” syndrome occurs when older adults have gone without sex for so long that the first sexual experience is often accompanied by enormous anxiety that makes a sexual encounter almost impossible. Staff in communities who are unaware of the fear exacerbate the situation with lack of support and negative attitude.

The presenter’s advice to staff and seniors about sex? Use it or lose it! Late in life adults are sexual beings from birth to death and have every right to express their sexuality. In fact, “physiological changes that come with aging do not necessarily alter desire or ability”.

The speaker? The pioneer of a burgeoning new field – sexual response research, Dr. William Masters.  The date? June 24, 1983. The audience? The Sixth World Congress of Sexology.

Last week, I was honored to facilitate a workshop at the Sarnat Symposium for professionals at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, discussing sexuality and aging. When I asked the professionals in the room about the hurdles to sexual freedom for older adults, their answers echoed Dr. Masters observations 28 years ago!

The field of sex education has come a long way in the last 28 years, since Dr. Masters suggested that we pay attention to the sexual rights of older adults. We still have a long journey ahead of us. Our mission as professional sex educators is to be sure that 28 years from now, we (and the new crop of senior sexuality educators) can honestly say that “times have changed” – and seniors are enjoying the support and positive encouragement of staff in residential communities, including policies that support sexuality in residents. Let this voice from the past function as a reminder that we have serious work to do. Let’s go forward with renewed dedication to the sexual freedom of our aging population.

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