Seniors and S-E-X

Published In Mental Health & Well-Being

In American society, which seems hellbent on shunning the reality that aging is a natural part of living, the idea of seniors having sex suffers from double taboos.

And yet, they persist. Perhaps the current deluge of television ads for various drugs that purport to make it easy and fun for older people to have sex at the drop of a whim makes it easier to speak up about it. Recent reports underscore that the majority of older men and women remain enthusiastic about sex and intimacy. Nearly half of the men and women 50 and older reported they had sex at least once a week, according to an AARP poll, with even higher numbers declaring that sex is an important component of a good quality of life.

And bucking another long-held stereotype that sexuality is shunned by the gentler sex, another study found that nearly 60% of women in their 60s and older who were married or cohabiting were sexually active and more satisfied with their sex lives than ever before.

Still Doing It

That joy of sex comes through loudly and clearly in the documentary, “Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 60,” in which filmmakers Deirdre Fishel and Diana Holtzberg set out to shatter the stereotype that women over a certain age shut down all thoughts and urges for sex with a literally intimate look at the lives of nine candid older women.

“To me, sex is pure joy. Even bad sex is better than no sex,” enthuses Harriett, who is 75. “Yes, I still feel sexy all the time.”

And Ellen, who met her lover Delores while both were well into their 60s and after she had survived an earlier life as a “1950s housewife,” observes: “I have to say there are times when Delores and I are walking down the street, and we are thinking, ‘The folks here, the people who get up and give us a seat on the bus, they have no idea how hot we are in bed’.”

But the openness about older people and sexuality is relatively new. The first comprehensive sex survey of seniors in the United States was conducted in 2007, when more than 3,000 people ages 57 to 85 were polled about their attitudes, behaviors, and problems related to the topic. Then, as now, the research revealed that:

  • most seniors thought of sexuality as an important part of life;
  • many remain sexually active well into their 80s; and
  • sexual activity was closely tied to overall health, which was even more important than age.

News reports of the survey at the time couldn’t hide their surprise and titillation. Even the restrained New York Times headlined the story: “Survey Shows Many Elderly People Remain Frisky.”

But Dr. Ruth Westheimer, widely heralded as a media celeb sex therapist and author of more than 40 books on the topic, summed up simply: “It’s about time.”

Also, It’s Good for You

Today, the health benefits to seniors being sexually active are widely accepted. It has been shown to help boost the immune system, burn calories, lower blood pressure, decrease the risk of heart attacks, lessen the probability of prostate cancer, promote relaxation, provide distraction from pain, lessen depression, and actually increase life expectancies.

Bur it wasn’t always thus. When John Harvey Kellogg, a medical doctor, self-styled nutritionist, and advocate of sexual abstinence invented Corn Flakes in the late 1800s, he intended the cereal to be a bland food that would decrease or prevent sexual excitement or arousal, and encouraged his patients to eat the flakes to prevent thoughts and the reality of masturbation. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes are still widely produced and touted as “The Original & Best Cereal,” though few are familiar with its allegedly therapeutic origins.

The Downside of the Upside

Still, there are potential health risks to seniors’ more open embrace of sexuality. According to 2021 data from CDC’s  Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report, rates of syphilis have increased from 279 cases in 2016 to 835 cases in 2021, chlamydia from 1772 cases in 2016 to 2780 in 2021,  and gonorrhea from 1599 in 2016 to 3189 in 2021 (92%), all  among adults ages 65 and over.

Medicare offers some relief, often helping to pay the costs of screening and treatment.

The impediment seems to be that for many people, sex is still seen as a dirty secret. For example, the first-of-its kind poll heralded by Dr. Ruth revealed that only 22% of women and 38% of men said they had talked with a doctor about sex since they had turned 50.

And it’s not just the patients who are remaining reticent. Research also shows that doctors are less than likely to initiate the topic with patients; in fact, most say do not talk with their older patients about sex at all. Some demur that they simply assume sex is less important to them; others acknowledge they lack the training to discuss and diagnose sexual issues with seniors.

Seniors who wish to take the matter of sex education into their own hands can consult a tip sheet, Safe Sex for Seniors.  And the more musically inclined can listen to Shannon Dowler, a doctor in Asheville, North Carolina, aka RapDktaD, who offers a video of a rap song to the tune of “Ice, Ice, Baby,” informing seniors and their doctors that STI rates are on the rise and letting them know how and when to get help.

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