Sexuality and the Senior
The concept of a grandparent as a sexual being is uncomfortable for many. But sexuality is an important component of any adult’s self-image, including those older than 50. Seniors have frequently been labeled as asexual in American culture, particularly misleading stereotypes assert that older men are impotent and older women are frigid. On the contrary, seniors are a rapidly growing group of online daters.
What Is Sexuality?
Sexuality is not simply about sexual behavior or intercourse. Sexuality has to do with one’s identity as a man or woman, a straight or gay person. It can be about the enjoyment of putting on lipstick, cologne, or an attractive outfit. Sexuality can be about romance and companionship. Sexuality, for some older adults, can mean connecting with someone physically through a variety of sexual behaviors. For single, divorced, or widowed older adults, sexuality can be about the hope and possibility of meeting someone with whom they can connect. Sexuality can simply be about enjoying the sensuality of one’s own body through a foot massage or even masturbation. Sexual activity can also be very good for our overall health. Many studies suggest that sex bolsters the immune system, reduces stress, and improves cardiovascular health.
Sexuality As We Age
Most older adults can perform sexually if they would like to, but there are some barriers. Since women tend to live longer than men, older heterosexual women who may desire a sexual or romantic relationship frequently encounter a lack of available partners. Older females are also involved in caregiving more frequently, so this may leave them with less energy to pursue or maintain a sexual relationship. The current population of older adults tends to be conservatively religious and those beliefs may inhibit initiating a sexual relationship when single, divorced, or widowed.
Hormonal changes take place for both men and women. Nearly everyone has heard the jokes about the stereotypical menopausal moodiness. But these jokes can downplay how truly life-altering menopause can be. An outward sign of menopause coming to completion is when a woman has gone 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period. While the news is filled with reports about how much fertility drops in the thirties and forties, there is still a chance, albeit very slight, for women to become pregnant until menopause is completed. The loss of a woman’s ability to become pregnant is accompanied by a significant drop in estrogen, which typically occurs in her early 50s.
Older women frequently experience some discomfort with intercourse after menopause due to a condition known as urogenital atrophy. Urogenital atrophy is the lessening of lubrication and thinning of skin in the vaginal area. Urogenital atrophy can even cause some light bleeding for sexually active older women. Having regular sex, masturbating, and using lubricants can minimize the symptoms. Comfortable intercourse for older women is truly a “use it or lose it” scenario. If a woman has not been sexually active in a while, it is important for her to use lubricants and discuss with her doctor if she continues to be uncomfortable as there are other treatments that may be able to help.
Viropause or andropause is sometimes referred to as the male version of menopause. It involves a very gradual decrease in testosterone, beginning usually in the early 50s. Sexual response for older men also changes. Orgasms tend to be less intense, erections are a bit less firm, and refractory periods are longer. Occasional impotence does happen to older men and some may be quick to ask the doctor for performance-enhancing drugs. Older men may want to try being a bit more patient by enjoying additional minutes of foreplay, instead of immediately assuming they require medication for erectile dysfunction. It is going to take more time for an older man to achieve an erection than a younger man, but this does not mean that drugs are necessarily required.
Safer Sex Tips For Seniors
Practicing safe sex has many meanings, especially for older adults. Here are some tips to help seniors navigate their sexuality as safely as possible:
1. Prevent pregnancy.
Sometimes it is forgotten that men of any age can impregnate a woman. It is important for older men dating or married to women who have not completed menopause to remember that birth control is still crucial if an unplanned pregnancy would be a major disruption to their lives.
2. Use condoms.
The use of latex condoms, by far, is the best way to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), outside of abstinence. Older adults, just like sexually active persons of any age, need to take precautions against HIV, herpes, and other STIs. Unfortunately, the Kinsey Institute reports that condom use is low in the over 50 population (only about 1/3 of those older than 50 interviewed for a recent study indicated they used condoms during their last sexual encounter). While much public health education about STIs tends to focus on teens and young adults, the most recent statistics available from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that 15 percent of all new HIV cases are people age 50 or older.
3. Consider the impact on acute and chronic conditions.
Further, seniors with other health conditions need to consider them in order to have the safest sex possible. If a senior has arthritis or paralysis due to a stroke, it is important to seek positions that will make sex as comfortable as possible. If an older adult has a history of heart attack, discussing any concerns or anxiety with a doctor is important. If a man is experiencing regular impotence even when engaging in lengthy foreplay sessions, it is important to consider if there is a medication side effect or an undiagnosed condition. Sometimes healthcare providers don’t initiate such discussions, especially when the senior is single, because they wrongly assume they are not needed. It is important for an older adult to take initiative with doctors in these discussions when there are concerns.
4. Don’t worry about what everybody else says.
Some seniors can be reluctant to date or get involved in new romantic relationships because they worry about what their adult children, grandchildren, friends, or even the neighbors might say. Seniors have already lived full lives, raising families and making contributions to the workplace and community. They are adults entitled to make their own decisions about dating and sex. If a single senior has connected with someone, she has every right to reap the health and psychological benefits of sex, romance, and companionship. As more seniors date, remain vital, and push against the stereotype, we will see younger generations accepting and looking forward to their own sexually fulfilling golden years.
In conclusion, most older adults can enjoy an active healthy sex life if they want one. While sexual response may change a bit with age, the fun of romance and the comfort of companionship can help seniors feel youthful.
Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, is an author, speaker, and educator; Founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc.; and an Adjunct Instructor at Johns Hopkins University. Her book, Your 24/7 Older Parent, focuses on caring for an elderly parent. jenerationshealth.com.