Sex

Sex in the Senior Years

New research shows the continued importance of sexual intimacy in old age.

Posted Aug 26, 2019

What do you imagine your sex life will be like in your golden years of retirement? A popular theory of love and marriage proposes that the passionate love of our early years will gradually transform into a companionate love in which nonsexual intimacy prevails over sexual passion. As our bodies grow old and feeble, we may no longer be sexually aroused by our partner—or even be sexually arousable at all. But by this time, our life partner has become our closest friend, the one who knows us better than anyone else.

While such a scenario may have been true in the past, we also need to keep in mind a number of game-changing events that have occurred over the last few decades. In particular, people are living a lot longer than they used to. At least for well educated, financially secure individuals, it’s not at all unreasonable to expect to live into your 80s or 90s with reasonably good health. With about a 20-year increase in life expectancy over the last century, it’s no exaggeration to say that 60 is the new 40, and 80 is the new 60.

To gain a better understanding of the factors influencing sex after sixty, German psychologist Karolina Kolodziejczak of Humboldt University in Berlin and her colleagues surveyed more than 1,500 people 60 years of age or older (ranging from 60-82). The researchers then compared the senior citizens' responses with a reference group of nearly 500 young adults (aged 22-36). The results of this study show that sexual intimacy is a far more important component of a happy lifestyle in older adults than previously believed.

The participants responded to questionnaires on the following topics:

  • Sexual behavior. Respondents indicated the frequency of sex over the last year, ranging from 0 meaning “never” to 4 meaning “at least once per week.” Importantly, the researchers expanded the definition of sexual activity beyond intercourse to include non-penetrative acts, caresses, and bodily contact. While penetrative intercourse remains the “gold standard” among couples, sex researchers have come to understand that many older couples overcome physical limitations such as erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness by engaging in non-penetrative acts that still lead to orgasm and feelings of sexual intimacy.
  • Sexual cognition. Respondents used the same 0-4 scale to indicate the frequency of sexual thoughts. Not surprisingly, these were more common than sexual acts, but not by much. Most sexual cognition eventually lead to sexual activity.
  • Sexual affect. The participants responded to several questions regarding the extent to which they experienced intimacy through bodily contact with their partner as well as through conversational exchanges. The average response of these senior citizens was well above the midpoint on the scale, indicating at least general satisfaction in intimacy within this sample.
  • Physical health. All participants underwent a physical exam in which they reported their medical history, and they were tested for physical strength using a grip test. The seniors in this sample were on average in better health than would be expected for this age group.
  • Psychosocial variables. In particular, the researchers considered three variables: relationship status (partnered or single), relationship duration, and relationship satisfaction. Two-thirds of the seniors in this study were partnered, most were in long- term relationships of many years, and relationship satisfaction was generally high. Among both partnered and non-partnered respondents alike, reports of loneliness were quite low.

When the senior citizens were compared against a reference group of younger adults aged 22-36, the results showed a mix of surprising and not-so-surprising results. As expected, the older adults reported fewer sexual acts and thoughts compared with the younger reference group. In contrast, older adults indicated that they experienced similar levels of intimacy as the younger generation. This finding lends support to the idea that marriage transforms over time from a passionate to a companionate relationship.

A closer look at the data, however, reveals some interesting facets of sexuality in the silver years. Most importantly, there was a high degree of variability in the frequency of sexual activity among senior citizens. While many were having sex far less frequently than the 20- and 30-year-olds, a full third of them reported that they were having sex more often than the average for the younger generation. In other words, a significant portion of older adults had a sex life that would make most young adults envious!

The vigorous sex life of senior citizens is no doubt due to the vastly improved health of people in this age range. In fact, statistical analyses indicated that health was not an important predictor of sexual frequency in older adults, as is generally assumed. Rather, the most important factor was having a partner. In other words, those senior citizens in committed relationships were having sex quite often, while those who were widowed or divorced often led a sexless existence. It’s also important to point out that whereas many of these relationships were decades-long marriages, they also included newer partnerships formed after widowhood or divorce.

By the way, it’s important to emphasize that this sample was better educated and enjoyed better health than the general population. So it may still very well be the case that poor health is an impediment to sexual activity in later life, as is generally believed. But among those senior citizens who still enjoy good health, the key to a happy sex life is the availability of a partner within a committed relationship.

In conclusion, the study provides encouragement for all of us as we advance in our years. People are living longer—and staying healthy longer—than ever before. Those of us who remain in good health into our silver years can look forward to a meaningful sex life well into old age. And given the physical and psychological health benefits of an active sex life, one has to wonder whether having lots of sex in old age is one factor that keeps these senior citizens so healthy.

References

Kolodziejczak, K. et al. (2019). Sexual activity, sexual thoughts, and intimacy among older adults: Links with physical health and psychosocial resources for successful aging. Psychology and Aging, 34, 389-404.