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High Hopes: Sex as we Age

A ScooterLink Publication
A column for today's seniors by Cyn LoPinto, M.A., Gerontologist

While youth may be wasted on the young, sexual desire and activity are very much a part of later life. The American media may show only young, athletic and attractive people having sex, but in reality, various forms of sexual expression are taking place in bedrooms of older people as well. The assumption that human sexuality diminishes with age, is false. Most seniors have the ability to lead an active and satisfying sex life.

What are some of the age-related changes in relationship to sexual function? For women, a decline in estrogen following menopause may cause a decrease in vaginal lubrication. While this may affect sexual pleasure, there are numerous over-the-counter vaginal lubricants to help remedy the problem. The vagina itself may change in shape. It may become narrower, shorter and less elastic. Typically the lining of the vagina begins to thin as well. These changes, however, rarely cause a serious loss in the ability to enjoy sex.

Changes for men are a bit more noticeable. The amount of testosterone produced decreases in the aging male. Because of this reduction, the size and firmness of the testicles also decrease. The amount of time it takes to get an erection may take longer. Here direct stimulation of the penis may be necessary. The erection itself may not be a firm or large as it was when the man was younger. The amount of time it takes between the erection and ejaculation also increases with age. The "urgent" feeling to ejaculate decreases as well as the amount of seminal fluid. There is also a longer time period before another orgasm is possible.

While both sexes may look at this information in a negative light, realizing these "normal" physical changes can help open the door to better understanding and communication. For example, by an older man knowing that an occasional problem in maintaining an erection is normal, he is less likely to experience anxiety-produced impotence in later tries. If his partner also knows this information, she won't have to "walk on egg shells" around the subject. In another example, if a couple is aware of the normal decrease in vaginal lubrication of the older female, the extra time needed for stimulation won't cause anxiety. The man won't internalize the situation by imagining the reason for his partner taking "so long" to get excited, is because she no longer finds him attractive. The woman, as well, won't be stressing that her dryness is because of a "frigidity" issue. Sex is one area, especially, where knowledge is power and this power brings freedom!

A real positive result of the age-related changes in sexual functioning is timing. Because it takes the older male longer to perform, the female now gets more time to enjoy herself too (something she may have been nagging him about in their younger years). This extra time may include longer foreplay, increased genital stimulation and basically more attention. Touching, kissing, hugging and caressing may take on a much deeper meaning to couples. These changes may help to improve intimacy and closeness between aging partners.

Another positive time-related result involving sex during later years is more free time. Earlier years were filled with careers, child-rearing and endless household duties. Many couples had trouble fitting sex into such a busy schedule. A lot of seniors enjoy the freedom of sex anytime they feel like it (as well as the freedom to enjoy sexual activity without the worry of becoming pregnant). The routine of sex "only before bedtime" can now be replaced with an early morning, late afternoon or middle of the night rendezvous. The privacy of having the house to "just the two of you" is a real positive change as well.

Certain lifestyle changes during older adulthood may affect sexual relationships. Retirement for example, can have either a positive or negative effect on a couple's intimacy. For some, retirement enables a husband and wife to spend more quality time together. This strengthens their relationship. For others, the idea of being together day in and day out after years of "separate lives," is just too much. In this situation sexual tension is high. Depression, thus causing a lack of interest in sex, may also come into play here.

Societal, religious and moral pressures may cause psychological barriers to a satisfying sex life. An openness to other forms of sexual expression such as oral sex, masturbation and even a willingness to try different sexual positions can help seniors adapt to changing situations. Women, especially, who grew up during an era where female sexual desire was never discussed, may have trouble. While Viagra has brought the subject of older male sexuality into the headlines, female sexual issues involving older women are hardly talked about. Those who feel that sex is ultimately for procreation will also have difficulty during this time. Any negative attitude causing older adults to view themselves as "non-sexual" beings will affect their behavior. Some see this as the excuse they have been looking for to live a life denouncing their sexuality. Other seniors have problems with their adult children's disapproving attitudes of their sexuality. Such "inappropriate behavior" is frowned upon by many circles in our society. Long-term care facilities are just now beginning to address the issue of the sexual rights of their residents. Sexuality is finally being recognized as a basic human need for the elderly.

A major factor concerning sexuality and aging is availability of partners. According to the Administration on Aging, in the year 2000 there was a sex ratio of 117 women for every 100 men between the ages of 65 to 69. This ratio jumped to 245 women for every 100 men for those over the age of 85. The opportunity for a new sexual male partner following widowhood may not be there for most women. One solution to this problem is masturbation. This sexual activity is a viable choice for those who are widowed, divorced or whose partners are either ill or away. Vibrators may help women keep their sexual health alive and are available in most neighborhood drug stores.

Other issues that affect sexual functioning relate to illness and/or disability. In most instances, however, these conditions rarely warrant stopping sexual activity. Those conditions that may have some effect on sexual functioning include heart disease, diabetes, stroke and arthritis. Certain medication and alcohol consumption may also affect sexual performance. While surgeries such as hysterectomy, mastectomy and prostatectomy, cause concern to patients in regards to their sex life, most report little change after some period of adjustment. Psychological and emotional issues may have a much greater effect on the sex life of an older person than physical issues do. Some of these problems include a change in body image, a decrease in self esteem, an overwhelming response pertaining to grief and loss, as well as a negative reaction to distressing medical symptoms. AIDS also opens the door to brand new anxieties for seniors. While safe sex is just as important for older adults as it is for younger ones, many fail to use condoms due to the absence of fear of pregnancy. You are never too old to be at risk. It is best to check with your doctor or health care professional if you have concerns relating to any of these areas.

The bottom line is that sexuality is a part of who we are and this doesn't disappear just because we happen to have another birthday. We can't let societal pressures and outside forces box us into what is deemed as "appropriate." Many older people report their sex life as being better and more satisfying. The whole entire package, including closeness as well as the sexual act itself, is what many couples were looking for all along. There is much more freedom during this period. Age is a state of mind and negative attitudes can indeed change. With the Baby Boomers hitting the senior scene, we will hopefully begin to watch stereotypes relating to the sexuality of older adults disappear. It's about time!


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