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Cecilia Capuzzi Simon
Cecilia Capuzzi Simon

Ewww...Old People Sex!

Seniors are a frisky bunch, and getting friskier, researchers confirm.

Okay, okay. So maybe this is a cheap way to get readers to click on my blog. But can you blame me? Age-phobic boomers usually don't seek out blogs on the infirmities that await them in old age, unless old parents are experiencing those infirmities and affecting their boomer children's lives. When I tell people I blog on aging and elder care, the usual reaction is: "Wow. That must be depressing." Well, not always. And that's where sex comes in. Old people are having it. Now more than ever before.

I'm as guilty as the next person when it comes to not wanting to picture old people, um, copulating--or worse. (For those who have read my previous blogs, you can be assured that I won't be talking about my mother in this one.)

When I decided to take on this subject, I was reminded of the sexually explicit HBO series "Tell Me You Love Me." Jane Alexander played a grey-haired 60- or 70-something couples therapist who, naturally, had marital issues of her own. The one scene that has stuck with me from the few times I viewed the show (which was, mercifully, cancelled), was one in which Alexander is performing felatio on her husband, the back of her grey head bobbing about at the bottom of the screen. My cousin and I had been trading notes on the show and I called her first thing the next morning to talk about this scene. "Now that," I told her, "was seriously disturbing." She reminded me that, if not for hair coloring, I'd have grey hair, too.

Seniors Gone Wild

Slate ran a story in June about a nursing home romance between an 82-year-old woman and a 95-year-old man--both suffered from dementia, but were (they said) "in love." They were the envy of their nursing-home cohorts and they were having seemingly consensual sex (without the aid of Viagra!). That is until the old man's son caught them in the act. As Slate quoted him: "She had her mouth on my dad's penis! And it's not even clean!" Ultimately, the union became too much for just about everyone (except the woman's daughter) to bear--nursing home personnel were caught in a dilemma (sex and the single elder is a problem in nursing homes), the couple's peers had drawn sides, and the man's son, in addition to being appalled by his father's still raging libido, worried that the girlfriend was a gold digger. They were separated in the facility, and the old man was eventually moved to another nursing home.

Then there is the elder-porn boom in Japan, and the growing popularity of one of its, ahem, rising stars, Shigeo Tokuda--a 74-year-old who keeps his day job while living a double life as an actor in adult films. His wife and daughter, apparently, have no idea of his moonlighting (Tokuda is his screen name). The American press has marveled at his stamina and speculated about his appeal. In "one of the most sexless societies in the industrialized world," as Time magazine described Japan, why is elder porn one of the fastest growing genres in the country's growing billion-dollar adult video industry? Can America's oldsters be far behind?

The Facts

If we look at elder-sex stats, we shouldn't be surprised by these stories. Just the fact that there is new and growing research in the field is evidence that the subject is being taken seriously (maybe because aging boomers are worried about what's to become of their own libidos) and that somebody wants to talk about it. Those of us with maybe another 10 or 20 good years of youthful pretension about us should find comfort in knowing that old age doesn't necessarily mean an end to what should be one of life's great pleasures.

So, consider:

• Half to three-quarters of 57- to 85-year-old Americans are sexually active, with a significant number of those engaging in "frequent and varied sexual behavior," according to surveys of 3,000 elderly published in The New England Journal of Medicine last year, and reported in the Washington Post.
• Twenty-five percent of those between 75 and 85 years old reported having sex--doing it at least once every couple of weeks. A third of those said they had given or received oral sex.
• Nearly three-quarters of those with partners said they were sexually active--about the same as what 40- and 50-year-olds report.
• The proportion of those having sex and the frequency with which they have it does decline with age, but among the oldest group in the survey, 54 percent of those who were sexually active said they had sex two to three times a month--23 percent said they had sex once a week, or more.
• Vaginal intercourse was the most common activity--but a significant number also said they engaged in oral sex and masturbation.
• Seventy-five percent of those approached by researchers participated in the survey--an unusually high response rate, leading researchers to speculate that even the most senior seniors are eager to talk about a traditionally taboo subject.
• Then there is a 2008 Swedish study published in the British Medical Journal and reported in the Washington Post. Researchers report a dramatic increase in the frequency of sex among 70-year-olds over the last three decades. The study compared the sexual behavior of those in this age group at four points in time between 1971 and 2001. For married men, 68 percent in the 2001 poll said they were engaging in sex compared to 52 percent in 1971. The number of married women having sex also increased--from 38 percent to 56 percent. Unmarried men and women reported increased sexual activity in that time, too--from 30 percent to 54 percent of men, and from 1 percent to 12 percent of women by the last poll.

So, why are many of us so squeamish on this subject? That's a discussion for subsequent blogs. Or feel free to speculate in your comments.

About the Author
Cecilia Capuzzi Simon

Cecilia Capuzzi Simon is a science writer specializing in health and psychology.

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