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New Relationships and Sex after 60, 70, and 80

What’s a son or daughter to do?

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"So I said to my father, ‘What do you mean you're taking her out to dinner?’!" my energetic 30-ish bookkeeper said to me recently as we discussed how she and her sisters were dealing with their 70-something father’s decision to begin dating again. She went on to say that they were having some difficulty accepting Dad's newly emerging (or perhaps more acknowledged) libido, and said they would be more comfortable thinking about his need for companionship. Most of all, they were somewhat anxious and not quite sure what to do or say.

While being outwardly open-minded, a significant number of middle-aged adults have more than a little difficulty thinking about Mom or Dad being with a new partner. As a matter of fact, this is a significant issue in retirement communities. In Aging Today, the bimonthly newspaper of the American Society on Aging, Ann Christine Frankowski reports that these communities sometimes impose prohibitions and policies that limit sexual contact between residents. Ostensibly, these no-sex rules are in place to protect the older adult, but in actuality they’re a marketing tool to appeal to the middle-aged sons and daughters who are often picking up some, if not all, of the tab. The people who are least consulted about prohibitions against sexual contact are the older residents themselves, most of whom would like to be left alone, thank you, to work things out for themselves.

So what do we know about sex and older adults? Here are some interesting facts:

In looking at the research from 70,000 feet, certain patterns emerge. Most older adults who are in a relationship are sexual, and like to have sex; not all, of course, but a striking majority. For those who do not have an ongoing relationship, sex appears to be less important. But is that because they're not interested, or does not having an available partner diminish a perceived interest in sex? Not too surprisingly, across the age spectrum, men are more sexually active than women, and men are more interested in sex than women.

The level of sexual activity and interest in sex may be compromised by sexually-related health issues. Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a problem for men that increases significantly after age 60. However, Viagra and its mates are effective in dealing with ED until 85+, and even then, can help those men who want to be sexually active do so. Statistics say a significant number of older men use Viagra regularly, at $25-$35 a pop.

For women, the issue is often vaginal dryness, which makes intercourse and other types of sexual activity not only unpleasant, but often painful. Once again, pharmacology comes to the rescue—there are a number of things that women can do to address this issue, assuming that they are willing to talk with their physicians or other healthcare professionals about their concerns.

Other general health issues need to be considered as well. Can a man or woman with cardiovascular disease—and who has had stents inserted after a heart attack—safely be sexual again? A cardiologist is the person to consult, but in most instances, the answer is yes. According to the National Institute for Aging, the following may either limit or compromise the older adult’s ability to be sexually active: arthritis, chronic pain, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, incontinence, stroke, depression, surgery, and medications. Consultation with an experienced physician or other health provider will help Mom or Dad determine what his or her options are.

So are there some problems or issues that need to be addressed with regard to older adults and sexuality? You bet. The first one, already mentioned, is the dramatically rising rate of STDs in men and women over 60—they don't always practice safe sex! Why not? Usually, it’s because for a long time, they were married or in a monogamous relationship where there was no chance of pregnancy. If their partner was faithful, there was no need to use condoms. However, when reentering the dating scene, men tend to continue the pattern of no condoms and women don’t feel the need to raise the issue. Guess what? They can both get and pass on STDs.

Perhaps the first conversation between middle-aged children and their older adult parents should be about safe sex. Talk about role reversal! But if you think or know that Mom or Dad is planning to become sexually active, it may be appropriate to bring up the topic. How do you do it? Well, ver-r-r-y carefully.

"Hey Dad (or Mom), this is a bit awkward for me, but remember when I was a kid and you talked with me about sex and being responsible? Well, I need to have the same conversation with you. Here's an article that talks about STDs and older adults—you might want to read it. Again, I'm not making any judgments about whether you are or are not planning to become sexually active. I just wanted to make sure you take care of yourself, whatever you choose."

There may be a lot of blushing or harrumphing, but it is the right thing to do.

What if Mom or Dad is living independently and dating—or has an ongoing relationship with a new partner? Unfortunately, the first thoughts are often negative, due to traditional stereotypes. If it's Mom and a younger man, it’s “He’s only after one thing," along with the fear of possible financial exploitation. If it's Dad, and particularly if he is with a younger woman, it’s “She’s a gold digger.” In either case, negative images often emerge: “No fool like an old fool” and “Why doesn’t he/she act his/her age?”

So, what do you do if you know that Mom or Dad is dating again, particularly if they're seeing someone on an ongoing basis?

How about meeting the new partner before making any judgment? For example, "Hey Dad, you keep talking about Virginia and all the fun you two are having. We’d like to meet her. How about all of us going out to dinner this weekend?"

In most instances, your fears will be allayed, because Mom or Dad is likely to be approaching this new relationship in a reasonable fashion, particularly if this has been their pattern over the years. The partner will likely be a good person who is adding to your parent’s life. What’s most important is that you don't let all of your biases and stereotypes get in the way of being open to Mom or Dad having a fuller and more enjoyable life.

However, if something of an exploitative nature does appear to be going on, more serious follow-up conversations may need to take place. The widespread accessibility of online dating has made the possibility of meeting new potential partners easier and faster than ever before. While for many older adults, online dating sites offer new opportunities, they may also present new opportunities for seniors to be taken advantage of. According to an article released by The New York Times this month, adults—and older women in particular—using online dating sites are losing tens of millions of dollars each year to scams. These scams are often carried out when individuals either take over unused dating profiles or create fake user profiles in order to build relationships. It’s only later when these individuals begin asking for money.

Let me be clear: The vast majority of legitimate users of online dating websites are perfectly safe. However, online safety is an important consideration. This is all the more reason to inquire about meeting your Mom or Dad’s new partner. Again, more often than not, the meeting will quiet any concerns you might have.

What if Mom or Dad is in a retirement community? The newest complexes are often Continuous Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs), so that once they become residents, older adults can move through the system. The four levels are Independent Living, Assisted Living, Memory Care Unit (for those with Alzheimer's/dementia), and Skilled Nursing. Not all retirement communities have all levels but many of the newer ones do.

For those adults who are in Independent or in Assisted Living, the assumption is that they are fully capable of making independent and informed decisions about what they want to do and with whom. The challenge is a balance between protecting the older adult from being taken advantage of and giving them the freedom to make independent choices. At the present time, the balance seems to be weighted on the protection end of the continuum, but this is likely to change, particularly in those instances when the older adult is the payee. Once again, if you know that Mom or Dad is in a new relationship, the most appropriate thing to do is meet the new partner.

When Mom or Dad is cognitively challenged—whether it’s mild cognitive impairment or full-blown Alzheimer's—the situation becomes much more complex. Here there are conflicting views, but protection seems to be the dominant theme.

Consider the case of former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor. When she found out that her husband, who was in a memory unit of a residential care community, had found a new partner, she accepted the news and in fact, was pleased that he was finding some new happiness.

In conclusion, many older adults are sexually active, and many others might want to be if they had the opportunity. In some cases, this is difficult for their middle-aged children to accept, particularly if it involves Mom or Dad being with a new partner. The challenge for the middle-aged children is to be respectful, supportive, and responsible.

More from Morton H Shaevitz Ph.D., ABPP
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