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April 2, 2001
Senior Sex: Keeping It Lively in the Twilight Years
By Leah Shafer

illustration: Skipper Chong Warson

Picture your parents having sex. Now picture your grandparents having sex.

Uncomfortable? Many of us feel more than a little uneasy imagining sexual behavior in older people, wanting instead to believe that sexual desires somehow fade away as we glide into the twilight years.

The reality is, the elderly couple down the street may be having more sex of a better quality than you thought. According to a recent study from the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), half of Americans over 60 engage in sexual activity at least once a month, with a substantial portion having sexual contact once a week or more.

Seniors tell researchers they don't believe they're too old for sex, because even with the difficulties that age can bring to sex, the desire for intimacy doesn't necessarily fade with time. Naturally, sexuality is a quality of life issue for everyone.

Stereotype versus reality

There's always been some sexual stereotyping about seniors, putting them roughly in the same camp as Mary Poppins or Mr. Rogers: asexual beings. On the flip side, those who express sexuality are stereotyped "dirty old men" or lecherous old ladies.

Things are changing. Over the last 50 years, a more holistic, real picture has been emerging. "We are seeing some changes in attitudes, [with people] more willing to accept sexuality as an appropriate and valid part of life, even in old age," says Linda Fisher, associate research director at the AARP. She was the project manager for research that created the AARP study.

Fisher predicts more changes as baby boomers live longer, healthier lives. "Some people may be surprised at the rate of sexuality in seniors," she says. "Sexuality continues to be part of life, even as we grow older." The results from her sexuality study bear that out.

Almost two-thirds of seniors say that having a satisfying sexual relationship is important to their quality of life, and a majority are "extremely satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with their sex life. They find their partners more attractive over time and make use of medical advances in sexual functioning to improve pleasure.

So roll over, Mr. Rogers. Today's seniors are visiting a different neighborhood and hanging out the "do not disturb" sign.

Role of health

As we age, natural changes in the body can impede sexual activity, and poor health can be a barrier to full enjoyment of an active sex life. But having a positive attitude and taking advantage of medical advancements can overcome many of these obstacles.

Sexual dysfunction or restriction in seniors can be caused by diseases like diabetes or by medications used to treat conditions such as high blood pressure. Also, natural changes in the aging body can occur to cause impotence in men and vaginal dryness in women. The good news is that these bodily changes don't have to sound the death knell for sexual pleasure.

"Even with a diminished sexual capacity that comes with age, the body still works sexually," explains Stephen B. Levine, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University and author of Sexuality and Midlife. "You can still have an orgasm and emotional satisfaction, and you can still have fun."

Many medications and devices exist to help alleviate diminished sexual pleasure and function, and seniors have quite a few to pick from:

  • Hormone replacement therapy. Menopause can create a number of uncomfortable symptoms for women, from vaginal dryness to painful intercourse. The traditional hormones used are estrogen and progesterone, but some women have even tried testosterone replacement therapy.
  • Lubricant. An over-the-counter aid to ease vaginal dryness can be helpful for couples.
  • Sildenafil (Viagra). This little blue pill from Pfizer is one of the most prescribed medications in America. Viagra increases the blood flow to the penis, enhancing the body's ability to achieve and maintain an erection. New studies are researching Viagra's effect on women as well.
  • Alprostadil. Available as Muse, a tablet inserted into the urethra where it dissolves and is absorbed into the penis, or Caverject, which is injected into the penis to create an erection in about five to 20 minutes. Caverject was the first medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat impotence.
  • Penile pumps. These run the gamut from electric vacuum pumps to hand pumps and other assorted styles. They draw blood to the genital area, promoting erection.
  • Herbs. There is anecdotal evidence that some herbs promote libido, lubrication, and erection.

Go Moms and Pops!

Younger people might not understand the lifetime role of sexuality and intimacy, but seniors know better. According to the study, the majority of seniors are optimistic about their present situation in life and almost two-thirds are optimistic about where they will be five years from now.

For most seniors involved in the AARP's research, better health for themselves or their partner, less stress, and more free time would increase their satisfaction with their sex life. These are not insurmountable obstacles, and with the help of the medical community, more seniors can continue to enjoy intimacy long into the golden years.

"It's not inevitable that sex should stop as people get older," Levine says. "There's no reason to think [seniors] should not have a healthy sex life."

So with that in mind, the next time you see an older couple in a camper with a bumper sticker that says, "If this RV's a-rockin', don't you come a-knockin'," cheer them on. Sex can be meaningful at any age.

Related links:

Rx.magazine feature story: Sweating Out Menopause

Rx.magazine feature story: Testosterone-Replacement Therapy

Outside link: Information on health and wellness from the AARP

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