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Changing how we see aging

Sex in Older Age

Same Old same Old?

Sex and old-age; only in the past 15 years could you put those two words together and be taken seriously. It wasn't that older people weren't interested in sex, it is that our culture just told us that they weren't supposed to be. This is all changing. As far back as Kinseys groundbreaking reports sixty years ago, there is evidence documenting interest and ability for sex in both men and women as they age--interest similar to the level they had in youth and an ability that is dependent on health status.

This initial validation was followed by Masters & Johnsons studies that reported a basic pattern to human sexual response (excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution) and also identified several important biological differences in those responses between young and old.

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The most obvious has to do with erectile changes in men. However, what some might label as dysfunction may actually be the impact of biological changes which can begin as early as the 40s. As men age, it is more likely that their erections become less firm, the recovery time between them increases and the force of ejaculation is lessened. Ostensibly this might seem that the man is less virile and less able to please his partner. On the other side, his partner might think that he is less aroused by her and her self-esteem is negatively affected.

The same can be true of the biological changes in women: thinning of the vaginal walls may result in small tears and discomfort during intercourse, and an increase in the time required for lubrication. This might also be perceived by both the man and the woman as a failure to become properly aroused.

These misperceptions about biologic changes often create a vicious cycle. It starts with partners becoming more and more anxious about their abilities to perform and to excite each other, and ends with an unwillingness to initiate love-making for fear of failure. Its a lose-lose situation. Research repeatedly shows that increased sexual enjoyment and satisfaction is possible even well into our 90s. Starr & Weiner, authors of the first major study that focused solely on sexuality and older adults, report that we just need to be flexible and creative to remain sexually satisfied. When understood, these biologic changes can be accommodated fairly easily.

However biology is only one part of the complex changes in older adults. The number one problem for couples--of all ages--is mismatched sex drives. He’s in the mood, she’s got a headache; she’s in the mood, he’s watching football. And the fact is that many older women do not have a partner at all. While some people remain very interested in sex, some have never been; some adjust well to age-related changes, and some don't. Regardless of where you are, knowledge is power; the more you learn about your own sexuality, the easier it is to accommodate your needs and desires. The largest sex organ is the brain. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle improves the biology of the act, but enriching the mind improves the quality of your relationships in general, including sexual gratification.

© USA Copyrighted 2013 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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