Published August 21, 2001, Pawtucket Times
Many seniors consider sexuality a very private matter.
But just after the wonder pill Viagra hit the pharmacy shelves across the nation in the late 1990s, sexuality in later life became literally the talk of the town.
From articles in daily newspapers to late night talk show monologues, to conversations with family and friends — we talked openly about sex, may be just joking about the miraculous powers of the little blue pill with the intent to relieve our own personal discomfort of the taboo topic. But Viagra was not a joke to tens of thousands of older persons who were able to become sexually active again.
But even today, this writer still hears snickers from some readers who believe that seniors are asexual, and that six is of no interest to them in the twilight years of their lives. It’s a myth, experts say, their observations supported by two nationally released research studies that indicate that sexual intimacy between seniors is alive and well in the United States and still important to those in their later years.
Don’t believe in the misconceptions and stereotypes that older people are asexual beings and that a person’s sexual needs quickly evaporate after they reach age 50, says Tamara Kreinin, president of the New York-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
“People are sexual beings throughout their lives,” Kreinin stated, adding that sexuality is a natural and healthy part of a person’s life.
Seniors do enjoy sex in their later years and it can enhance a relationship and bring couples closer, Kreinin noted. “You must not view sexuality as just intercourse,” she warns, because it has a wide-range of behaviors.
For Instance, touch can be an important part of a person’s life. Sexuality can also range from an embrace, a kiss, to intercourse, Kreinin added.
Adds Kreinin, today’s culture is focused on youth and sexuality but for many older people their sexual pleasure has increased over the years because they have become more comfortable with themselves and their intimate relationships.
According to Dr. David Kroessler, a geriatric psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor at Brown University in Providence, one’s sexuality is an integral part of human behavior.
“Sexuality activity does not stop after you’re 50,” Dr. Kroessler says, noting that this can sometimes be news to a low of people. “Younger people tend to think that sex is just for the young and they just can’t imagine their grandparents in their early 80s having sex. It’s not expected,” he noted, adding that many seniors in their later years, especially males, still have a strong sex drive.
“If someone is asexual as a younger person, they don’t develop into a more sexually promiscuous person when they become older,” Dr. Kroessler said. A person’s style of sexual behavior tends to remain constant throughout the life span, he says. “If sex is not frequent when you’re younger, it will definitely be less frequent when you are older.”
What does the national research tell us about sexuality and seniors?
According to 1 1998 National Council on Aging (NCOA) research study, half of Americans age 60 and older report that they are sexuality active, while four in ten want sex more frequently. The random NCOA survey of 1,300 older Americans was conducted by Roper Sarch Worldwide.
The NCOA study also found that men and women in their 60s are more sexually active than Americans in the 70s (71 percent of men vs. 51 percent of women in their 60s, 57 percent of men vs. 30 percent of their women in their 70s).
The survey results revealed that more older men than women said they are sexually active: 61 percent of men and 37 percent of women. This gap results, in large part, from the longer life expectancy of women, the researchers say. Older women are more likely to be widowed and no longer have a partner. The higher ratio of women to men increases with age.
Meanwhile, the researchers said that sexual activity continues to play an important role in relationships among older men and women.
Among those respondents who said they are sexually active, 79 percent of older men and 66 percent of older women said that maintaining an active sex life is an important aspect of their relationship with their partner. When asked about the emotional satisfaction they get from their sex life, 74 percent of the sexually active men and 70 percent of the active women said they are as satisfied or even more satisfied than they were in their 40s.
While more than half of all respondents said they engaged in sexual activity less than once a month, 54 percent of these men and 26 percent of the women said they would like to have sex more often.
While sex is viewed as important, so is romance, researchers say. Nine out of 10 respondents identified a high moral character, a pleasant personality, a good sense of humor, and intelligence as important qualities in a partner.
In addition, a 1999 AARP Modern Maturity survey revealed that Americans age 45-plus have not lost that “loving feeling.”
The mail survey was sent to 1,384 adults aged 45 and older in March of 1999 by National Family Opinion Research (NFO), Inc. This was the first time that the national publication had devoted virtually an entire issue to sex and relationships. The AARP study also dispels the myth that seniors are not interested in sexual intimacy.
In terms of frequency, among those with sexual partners, the researchers found that more than 62 percent of men ages 45-59 and 64 percent of women ages 45-54 reported that they engage in sexual intercourse once a week or more, as do more than a quarter of those 75 and older (26 percent for men and 24 percent of women).
More than seven-in-10 of those with partners (72 percent for men and 75 percent for women) stated that they engaged in intercourse at least once a month.
Additionally, the AARP study found that older persons are finding their partners more physically attractive over time. Going against the popular “youth-oriented” culture, the number of people who view their partners as romantic and-or physically attractive does not decline with age. It may actually increase, the study said. Sixty percent of men aged 45-59 gave their partners the highest possible ratings for physical attractiveness.
With the graying of America’s population, it is now time to bring senior sexuality out of the closet. We must accept the fact that sexuality continues throughout the human life-span, and encompasses more than just intimate sexual intercourse. It also includes cuddling, a tender kiss, a light touch on the shoulder, or holding hands.
A well-known song, “As Time Goes By,” reminds us sexuality is to be experienced by both young and old. “You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”
For a bibliography list on sexuality and aging go to www.siecus.org.
Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. This article was published in the August 21, 2001 issue of the Pawtucket Times.