Too old for intimacy?

Five benefits of sexual expression on later life

Whether a person is 22, 62 or 102 sexual intimacy can bring a range of health and wellbeing benefits. While it is common for sexual activity to slow down in later life, many older adults continue to value and enjoy sex. Sexual interest is different for each person: for some older adults continuing sexual activity is not important or appealing, while for others it is a valued source of connection and pleasure. It is important that we make room for a range of narratives around sex and ageing that go beyond the common stereotypes, supporting adults to meet their personal sexual health and intimacy needs at all life stages.

Stereotypes of sex and ageing

When it comes to sex and ageing there are three common stereotypes. The first, and perhaps the most pervasive is the “asexual older person” who no longer desires sex, even seeing it as undignified. The second is the “dirty older person” who’s sexual desire is perceived as distasteful and maybe even predatory, for example the “dirty old man” or “cougar” who makes unwanted advances. The third is the “sexy senior” who has a fit, healthy body, looks younger than their years, and enjoys regular sexual activity (making use of Viagra or Cialis when necessary).

This narrow range of options doesn’t leave a lot of room for genuine conversations about sexuality in later life. Like - what does positive sexual health and intimacy look like for older adults? What are the options for maintaining intimacy when one or both partners have chronic health conditions? How can sex be mutually satisfying when penetration is no longer on the menu? What about options for re-partnering or for solo sexual activity for single older people? And, what about older adults who are in residential care?

The reality of sexual expression in later life

The reality is that many older adults do continue to enjoy sex and consider it important for their wellbeing. Frequency may reduce over time, practices may need to be adapted to accommodate health and functional changes, and some people are prevented from continuing the intimate lives they desire due to losing a partner, the impacts of dementia, or separation in residential care. It is important to acknowledge these barriers, and also to acknowledge that some older people do not miss sexual activity. However, for others sex continues to be a source of joy and pleasure, and it can be beneficial for health and wellbeing.

Health benefits of sex for older adults

Engaging in sexual activity (either partnered or solo) can bring a number of health and wellbeing benefits.

1.     Sex is good for physical health

Unless a doctor advises against it, sexual activity is beneficial for an older person’s overall physical health. It is a form of exercise that’s good for cardiovascular health, flexibility, and muscle strength. There is evidence that sex boosts the immune system, and even improves your skin.

2.     Mental health benefits of sex

A number of feel-good chemicals are released in the brain during sexual activity including dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These improve mood, reduce stress, and contribute to overall sense of wellbeing. Sex (especially orgasm) can help with relaxation, sleep and pain relief.

3.     Intimacy and connection

Not everyone has access to partnered sex, and not everyone is interested in it, but for those who are, that physical connection with another person can feel really good. Positive sexual interactions enhance self-confidence, and keep “skin hunger” and loneliness at bay.

4.     Helps maintain sexual function

Physical and hormonal changes with age can make arousal and orgasm more difficult, and there’s a certain truth to the phrase “use it or lose it” when it comes to sex later in life. Regular sexual activity helps to keep the body in practice, whereas it may be more difficult to resume activity after any extended break.

5.     Sex as an opportunity for fun and play

For adults sexual activity can be a great source of fun and play. Older people may find that they have more time for intimacy than when they were younger. Changes in sexual function may necessitate adjusting practices that are no longer possible. While on the one hand, this may bring a sense of loss, it can also lead to experimentation, variety and fun.

Never too old

Sexual interest and pleasure is not only for the young. It is important that we dismantle unhelpful and ageist stereotypes when discussing sex in later life to encourage older adults to meet their sexual needs. The wide range of health and wellbeing benefits that sexual activity can have for older adults are physical, mental and emotional. While a person’s sexual expression will inevitably change over the life course, and what excites at 22 may not be what excites (or indeed is possible) at 102, we need to acknowledge that for many older adults sex is still important and understandably so.

[Source: Louise Bourchier, MPH. PhD student in sexual health, School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne.]