21st Century Aging

Living longer and better.

The Secret Lives of Sex in the Elderly

Hang-ups regarding elderly sexuality

Though most people believe that the elderly don’t have sexual relationships, my work with geriatric patients debunks this myth. Actually, many of my older patients often remark that the retirement and long-term care homes in which they live can sometimes seem like college dorms, and they’re not just talking about social cliques and drinking alcohol! 

An article by Patricia Bloom M.D. reports that starting with the baby boomers many older people remain sexually active, including “87% of married men and 89% of married women in the 60-64 age range.” And for those over 80, Bloom reports that 29% of men and 25% of women still engage in sexual activity.

Older people have sex, but why is this so difficult for us to think about?

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Why we might not want, or like, to think about sex among older people involve reasons that are both obvious and complex.  We don’t want to think about our parents and grandparents “in that way” because of notions that originate in our own childhood development. A common misperception among children who deny their parents’ sexuality is often heard in the joke, “Well, I know they did it twice” (implying that their parents only had sex to give birth, a youngster with another sibling might say).  Developmentally, this is quite normal. Simply put, it’s difficult for many of us to imagine the sexual lives of others, especially when it comes to our parents. After all, as children, our parents’ sexuality reminds us that we’re left out of important aspects of grown-up relationships. 

Perhaps another reason it's difficult to acknowledge sexuality in older generations has to do with the ways that women were not encouraged to act sexual or sensual prior to the "Sexual Revolution" in the 1960s  and 70s.  Such a cultural prohibition led to an outright tendency among many older women to deny this normal human need and natural desire.  We all know how women who expressed sexual desire in past (and even current) generations are viewed—that they are promiscuous.  And while this label is often okay for men, it is not for women.  Though many of us thought of our grandmothers as reserved and inhibited, this view changes when we consider the strong cultural influences they were subjected to.

Moreover, because we live in a predominantly youth-oriented society, the idea of the elderly having sex doesn’t conjure up the same satisfying expression of youthful vitality that we see in movies or on television. 

And this raises a larger question: Why do ideas about sex among people of any age have to only involve images that most of us associate with the young in order to be acceptable—glamorous movie stars, sexy models, and even pornography? I think one answer is that in order to deny the reality of this childhood feeling of being left out, we focus on how it’s only “we,” in the younger generations, who can enjoy sex.

Unfortunately, our discomfort with thinking about older people in this way has led to a kind of discrimination: We deny senior citizens privacy in care facilities and pathologize those who engage in normal sexual behavior.

Although the image of elderly people having sex may not be popular or cool, and may challenge our views of lifestyles in later years, it’s a normal activity that older adults actually engage in. And though it might stir up uncomfortable feelings, we certainly shouldn’t restrict or even punish the elderly who now want to continue to engage in that right and privilege, a natural part of living, no matter how old they are.

The elderly can and do enjoy sex. So now we just need to ensure enough privacy in the different settings in which the elderly live, so that they can enjoy themselves, just like the rest of us. 

A final note:

My newest book, When Someone You Love Has a Chronic Illness, addresses aspects of aging well, caregiving struggles, and the neglected issues of sexuality and other quality of life issues among the elderly.    

You can also follow me on Twitter @TMcGreenberg!

 

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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