Sexuality in Elderly Relationships
When we picture people making love, we rarely think of two people over the age of 60. In fact, when I show a film on elderly sexuality, many of my students cover their eyes and feel repulsed. Why is this? Why are we so averse to the idea that older people have healthy and satisfying sex lives? It is probably because we live in a society that equates sexuality with youth. Even so, the majority of elderly persons maintain an interest in sex and sexual activity, and many engage in sexual activity, including those who live in nursing homes (B. W. Walker & Ephross, 1999). In fact, half of all Americans who are 60 years old or older report their sex is as good as, or better than, when they were younger (N. K. Edwards, 2000).
A study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and Modern Maturity magazine found that even though the frequency of sexual intercourse drops with age, 67% of men and 61% of women rated their physical relationship with their partner as “extremely” or “very” satisfying (Modern Maturity, 1999). In another study, nearly half of the respondents age 60 and older were found to engage in sexual behavior at least once a month, and 40% wanted sex more often (National Council on Aging,
1998) . In addition, 43% reported that sex is physically and emotionally “just as good or better” than in their youth. The most common sexual behaviors for men and women over the age of 80 are touching and caressing, masturbation, or sexual intercourse (Bretschneider & McCoy, 1988). There are many similarities in aging among gay, lesbian, and heterosexual populations. In fact, the physical changes of aging affect all men and women, regardless of sexual orientation (Woolf, 2002).
Older Americans may find that their preferences for certain types of sexual behaviors change as they age—they may engage in sexual intercourse less and oral sex more, for example. These changes happen because many women do not discover their own sexual desires or try new sexual behaviors until later in life. Whether or not a man or woman remains sexually interested and active has to do with a variety of factors, including his or her age, physical health, medications, level of satisfaction with life, and the availability of a partner (Metz & Miner, 1998). One’s attitude about all these changes also makes a big difference (Woolf, 2002).
Throughout time, many researchers believed that medical and health issues were two of the biggest issues affecting female sexuality later in life. Although these factors are important, the most prevalent sexual problems in older women are not medical complaints (e. g., insufficient lubrication or painful intercourse), but rather a lack of tenderness and sexual contact (vonSydow, 2000). Hormonal changes associated with menopause are less influential than the effects of societal, psychological, and partner-related issues.
One of the most important factors dictating whether or not a woman continues sexual activity is whether she has an available and interested partner. When sexual intercourse stops in a marital relationship, it is usually because of the male’s refusal or inabil-
ity to continue, rather than the wife’s disinterest. This is often due to the existence of an erectile problem, which may be caused by physiological aging, illness, medication, or psychological issues (we will discuss this more extensively in Chapter 14).
Many older couples who experience problems in sexual functioning may not understand that they may have some options. In fact, some may give up on sex at the first signs of any sexual difficulties, believing that “sex is over.” After raising a family, one or both of the partners may also feel that recreational sex is inappropriate; as a result, they may stop having sex. For these reasons, it is important to educate aging populations about sex to help them understand the implications of any physiological changes they may be experiencing.
Many people, young and old, are not aware of the physical changes that can affect sexual functioning. One 79-year-old man understands the limitations but has come to accept them: “These days, my erections tend to come and go a bit unpredictably, but it doesn’t particularly matter. It usually comes back again pretty soon if stimulation is continued. And in any case, it only affects vaginal intercourse, and sex can be very good by other techniques” (Hite, 1981, pp. 883-884).
We’ve been talking about various types of dating, the importance of dating, and sexuality. Before we leave this discussion, there is one more important point to make. Many men and women who date each other for a significant time period have ideas about where they would like the relationship to go. Although they might not openly talk about these ideas, they think about it often. Because of this, couples enter into what is known as “silent agreements” wherein they believe they know what the other wants because they base it on what they themselves want (A. M. Johnson, 2001).
For example, two students of mine, Jason and Charene, have been dating for a year now. Charene has made it clear to Jason that she would like to get married and have a family one day. Jason, on the other hand, has made it clear to Charene that he doesn’t want marriage or kids. Yet they continue to see each other and avoid any discussions about this. The more they see each other, the more Charene believes that he’ll change his mind and come around. Jason, however, is thinking Charene must have let go of her fantasies of marriage because she’s still with him. Can you see how this silent agreement can lead to trouble? It’s important to talk about issues like these in relationships and consider moving on when your needs are not being met.
Question: Do most people tell their partners about all of their past lovers?
Knowing whether your partners have been exposed to sexually transmitted infections and whether you are at risk is important. However, knowing the specifics of their past love lives is really a personal matter. Some couples insist on knowing everything, whereas others believe the past should stay in the past. The biggest risk of sharing information about past lovers is jealousy. Many men and women who think they want to know everything about their partner’s past are consumed with jealousy or negative feelings after hearing the facts.
One study found that 25% of women who find out their partner had more sexual partners than they would have liked are significantly bothered by this, whereas 52% are bothered somewhat (Milhausen & Herold, 1999). My advice? Because it really depends on the couple, think it through before you and your partner share past history. Although many couples find that this kind of sharing brings them closer, others are driven apart.