The U.S. population is rapidly aging. Older adults comprise an increasing proportion of lovers. When couples in their sixties, seventies, and beyond have partners and are physically able to make love, most have regular partner sex. A great deal of research shows that compared with coupled elders who abstain from partner lovemaking, those who maintain active sex lives enjoy greater relationship satisfaction, better physical and mental health, more positive outlook, higher quality of life, and even extended longevity.
But in later adulthood, sex changes. Most older adults feel less sexual urgency and energy, especially those with chronic medical conditions (aches, pains, diabetes, heart disease, etc.). Older men usually develop some level of erectile dysfunction. Most older women contend with vaginal dryness and tissue thinning (atrophy) that can make intercourse uncomfortable even with lubricant. And as candles crowd the cake, it becomes increasingly difficult for many older adults to work up to orgasm.
Greater Decline in Frequency Than Satisfaction
But while sexual frequency drops in later life, satisfaction declines much less. In fact, some elders say they feel more satisfied with their lovemaking than ever. How do older adults maintain satisfying sex? Researchers at Sonoma State University in California invited coupled adults over 50 to complete a survey posted for 10 days on the website of NBC News. More than 9,000 people participated.
In their analysis, the researchers divided responses into four groups:
- Low frequency, low satisfaction (low-low, 3,985 respondents).
- Low frequency, high satisfaction (low-high, 1,065).
- High frequency, low satisfaction (high-low, 951).
- High frequency, high satisfaction (high-high, 3,163,).
The investigators focused on two groups: low-low and high-high, and filtered out those whose low-low status resulted from health problems that interfered with lovemaking. The low-low group was predominantly male—48 percent of the men who responded to the survey, and 38 percent of the women. The high-high group was predominantly female—38 percent of the women, and 33 percent of the men.
Sexual Elements That Reduced Frequency and Satisfaction
Low frequency and low satisfaction were strongly associated with:
- Desire differences. When one wants sex significantly more than the other, lovemaking suffers.
- Boredom. After a while, the same old thing all the time stops being fun.
- Silence. Lovers who don’t discuss their changing desires and needs or who stop checking in about these issues after a certain age wind up feeling out of touch with each other.
- Dismissing self-help resources. When one spouse presents material offering sexual suggestions and the other dismisses it, the presenter gets annoyed and the other feels defensive. If the same thing happens repeatedly, both partners develop resentments.
- No mood-setting. No candles, music, laughter, or whispered endearments before and during sex.
- Rushing into intercourse. Little or no kissing, cuddling, mutual whole-body massage, genital hand massage, oral sex, or toys.
- Duration differences. Low-low couples often disagreed on how long sex should last, with one’s insistence on quickies often causing resentments in the other.
- Emotional distance and chronic relationship tensions. These kill desire and impair performance.
- Lamentable history. Low-low elders tended to have long histories of sexual dissatisfaction with each other.
- Mythology. When one partner says, “I/we are too old for sex,” the other feels alienated.
Sexual Elements That Enhanced Frequency and Satisfaction
High frequency and high satisfaction were strongly associated with:
- Synchronicity. High-high couples were able to negotiate sexual frequencies both could live with more or less comfortably.
- Novelty. Anything new and different stimulates release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of sexual heat. High-high couples made love in new ways in new places, and at different times. They were open to self-help recourses, and thanked each other for presenting them.
- Discussion. What’s real intimacy? Self-revelation using words. Silence sabotages intimacy and frays emotional bonds. High-high couples were eager to discuss their sexual desires, needs, and changes. They also praised each other’s lovemaking, and asked for feedback. Many called or texted before sex dates to say they were looking forward to making love.
- Active mood-setting. High-high couples were big on candles, background, music, laughter, and saying, “I love you.”
- Lots of loveplay. The usual term is “foreplay,” but that implies activities that precede intercourse. Many older lovers find intercourse difficult or impossible because of men’s erection issues, and women's vaginal dryness and atrophy. High-high older lovers usually downplay or dispense with intercourse and focus on kissing, cuddling, mutual whole-body massage, hand jobs, fingering, oral sex, toys, and perhaps some anal play and kink (blindfolds, spanking).
- Extended whoopee. With increasing age, it takes longer to warm up to genital play. High-high couples enjoyed lots of non-genital loveplay before reaching between each other’s legs.
- Emotional investment. High-high couples consistently worked on their relationships and welcomed the discussions.
- Happy history. Couples that were high-high when young usually maintained it as they aged.
- Commitment to remain sexual. In high-high couples, both spouses believed sex was important to the relationship, and neither unilaterally withdrew from lovemaking because of age or other reasons.
Not Unique to the Elderly
While this study focused on couples over 50, the elements that contribute to sexual satisfaction or lack thereof are independent of age. The reasons for low and high frequency and satisfaction apply to lovers of all ages.
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DeLamater, J. “Sexual Expression in Later Life: A Review and Synthesis,” Journal of Sex Research (2012) 49:125.
Forbes, M.K. et al. “Sexual Quality of Life and Aging: A Prospective Study of a Nationally Representative Sample,” Journal of Sex Research (2017) 54:137.
Gillespie, B.J. “Correlates of Sex Frequency and Sexual Satisfaction Among Partnered Older Adults,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2017) 43:403.
Trompeter, S.E. et al. “Sexual Activity and Satisfaction in Healthy Community-Dwelling Older Women,” American Journal of Medicine (2012) 125:37.