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Sex and Aging

A lifetime of lovemaking.

Key points

  • Change in sexual functioning is part of aging.
  • Most healthy adults are able to lead active, satisfying sex lives into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even beyond.
  • The biggest obstacle to good sex for older people is their attitude about sex and aging.

Sex changes as we age. There is no point in denying that. Everything changes as we age. Both men and women lament the loss of youth and the accompanying loss of firm skin, boundless energy, and raging libidos. You would be part of a tiny minority if you did not sigh for the body you once had and the heights of passion you once reached. Now, having sighed, are you ready to acknowledge that some changes are good ones?

Modified sex is still sex

Most healthy adults are able to lead active, satisfying sex lives into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even beyond. Making love takes approximately as much energy as walking up two flights of stairs, a feat most of us are capable of accomplishing into very old age. Women do not lose their capacity for orgasm. If lubrication is a problem, they can use a lubricant and/or find relief through estrogen replacement. Though their response pattern slows down, men can still achieve and maintain erections that, though not as firm as those in their youth, are still sufficient for mutual pleasure.

Making the best of the life cycle

As the male response cycle slows down, the female response cycle speeds up, making men and women more in sync than they were in their youth. Because men typically need more stimulation to get an erection, the period of kissing, caressing, and stroking lasts longer. Also, older men tend to seek the warmth and closeness in sex that some women have waited decades for them to discover. Sex at midlife and beyond can be both tender and exciting—and filled with revelations as two people grow and change together. If they remain active and interesting people throughout their lives, they can also expect to remain good lovers. The biggest obstacle to good sex for older people is their attitude about sex and aging.

Ray and Penny working it out

“Ray isn’t interested in sex anymore,” complained Penny, his wife of 30 years. “I’ve tried seducing him, talking to him about it directly, giving him subtle hints—nothing works very often. He approaches me once a month if that. I want more sex, but I’m almost resigned to not having it. I feel rejected when I caress him in bed, and he turns over and goes to sleep. Maybe he can’t get excited by my body anymore."

Ray and Penny are an attractive, slender, and active couple in their early 50s. They have no medical problems. Like many women, Peggy found menopause a sexually liberating experience. No more birth control or periods. She could, she realized, make love spontaneously for the first time in her life. Why, then, did Ray avoid making love to his wife?

“I know Penny wants to make love a lot of nights, and I hurt her by turning my back to her,” he said. “Two things happened in the last few years to make me lose interest in sex. I had some problems with erection dysfunction, and my daughter announced we would be grandparents. Now, I look at my wife and think, ‘Grandmother.’ I’ve never seen a sexy grandmother. I look at my penis, and I think ‘failure.’”

Help can help

A therapist helped Ray deal with his attitudes about grandmothers by suggesting some new role models replace the ones he had in mind: those sex symbols and grandmothers Raquel Welch and Loni Anderson. Ray’s fear of impotence, common among older males, was his real barrier. Talking honestly to Penny about it helped alleviate most of his concerns.

Most men have had a bout of impotence by the time they reach 40. Fatigue, tension, illness, alcohol, and heavy meals are typical causes. Older men have to realize they will be more susceptible to these factors. They need to expand their sexual repertoire so that lovemaking is not entirely dependent on an erect penis. By having confidence in their ability to satisfy their partners—erection or no—they worry less about erection issues and, thus, make it less likely to occur.

Incidences of illness and disability do increase with age and, obviously, present sexual problems. But, in most cases, loving couples can continue to have sexual relations into their older years, albeit modified.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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