By Yvonne Sam
I recently attended a health seminar for the aging, and among the topics discussed was Sex And The Aged. Of surprise note, was the reactions, both facial and verbal, when the words “sex” and older” people were combined.
Pray tell, what are the factors underlying the accompanying uneasiness, awkwardness and air of surprise? Is it due to the fact that we believe older people are not having sex, do not have sexual fantasies or are not watching porn?
When we regard society’s predominant perspective, regarding late-life sexuality, the commonly-held convention has been that older people are not particularly sexually active or interested in intimate sexual relationships.
These assumptions can be extreme, ranging from humourous to disgusting, or simply a refusal to believe that people in their seventies and eighties have sexual interests or needs at all. Please, think again!
Contrary to what many young people think, older adults are having sex and, according to recent studies, plenty of it. Conducted research has confirmed what older people have long known, but have not, routinely or normally, talked about — that, typically, age does not lessen, or decline, the need and desire for sex. The basic requirements are good health, a consensual sexual partner and love or romance in the relationship.
Once young people abandon feeling icky about two nude octogenarians tangled up under the sheets, or the idea that Grandma and Grandpa do it, they will be relieved to know, that sex life does not have a shelf life.
In October 2017, the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging asked a national sample of adults about their perspectives on relationships and sex and their experiences, related to sexual health. This survey was administered online to a randomly selected, stratified group of older adults, aged 65–80.
The response showed that 40 percent of adults, between the ages of 65-80, are sexually active, and more than half, 54 percent, said that sex is important to their quality of life. “While sex is an integral part of the lives of many older adults, this topic remains understudied and infrequently discussed,” the study states.
In a press release, Erica Solway, co-Director of the poll said that sexual health among older adults does not get much attention, but is linked, closely, to quality of life, health and well-being.
“It’s important for older adults and the clinicians, who care for them, to talk about these issues, and about how age-related changes in physical health, relationships, lifestyles and responsibilities, such as caregiving, affect them,” Solway advised.
Despite less sex in older women than men, a study by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) found that women, over the age of 70, reported sex to be more physically satisfying than in their 40s. Sex was also shown to be more emotionally satisfying for both genders.
A 2010 study, from the Kinsey Institute in the United States, found more than 20 percent of people, aged 80 to 94, were still sexually active.
There are benefits to be accrued from having a healthy sex life, and perhaps, most importantly, sex helps you relax and feel satisfied. In addition, a healthy sex life can also reduce anxiety and cause the brain to release painkilling endorphins and substances that bolster the immune system.
Over the past few years, a number of websites have materialized to promote sexual activity as an important part of healthy aging. Health Canada has produced a webpage that discusses why “sexual activity is a natural and important part of a healthy lifestyle, no matter what your age”, and offers useful information on “maximizing your sexual experience in later life”. www.canada.ca/content/dam/phac-aspc/migration/phac-aspc/publicat/cgshe-ldnemss/pdf/guidelines-eng.pdf
Along with the knowledge of octogenarians still getting it on, long after the bell has rung, or they have been perceived by society as having aged out of their sex years, is not without its accompanying hazards.
The NCOA survey reveals a side of aging that has long been disregarded, and often misunderstood—the side of mature sexuality. One of the big problems also with senior sex has apparently been the elder set’s unwillingness to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases. www.thedailybeast.com/sex-and-the-senior-citizen-how-the-elderly-get-it-on?ref=scroll.
A study has shown that condom use was among the lowest in seniors, presumably because pregnancy concerns are no longer an issue, hence women do not insist on their usage. Older adults are more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) than younger adults. www.healthinaging.org/tools-and-tips/safe-sex-older-adults.
What is surprising, according to health experts, is the accompanying rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among this age group. Granted, while it may feel somewhat awkward or discomfiting to talk to a parent or loved one, over 60, about STIs, health experts say safe sex education for this age group is more important than ever, and if we want rates to drop, we have to start with accepting the fact that seniors have sex.
Family members may not be inquiring about the status of a senior’s sex life and health professionals may not even think to test them for STIs. Most people do not bring up sex or protection with their senior-aged loved ones, and most retirement homes may not be educating their residents, either.
STIs have been rising in Canada since the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2015 (the most recent national data available), chlamydia — the most commonly reported STI in Canada — has risen from 39,372 to 116,499 annual cases among all ages and genders, and gonorrhea rates increased from 5,076 to 19,845 in the same time period. Infectious syphilis rates rose, dramatically, from 501 to 4,551 cases.
While you may not have any symptoms at all — half of men and 70 percent of women don’t show signs of chlamydia — a simple blood or urine test, or a mouth or genital swab could quickly let you know if you have been infected. Yet sexually active Canadians are not getting it.
According to Richard Elliot, Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, it is a setback that needs to be confronted, if we are desirous of promoting the health of Canadians, across all domains, including sexual health. globalnews.ca/news/3793409/everything-canadians-need-to-know-about-sti-testing-and-sexual-health/
So the new public health message is that grandchildren need to tell their grandparents to use condoms. Plainly put, Grandma should insist that Grandpa puts on a hat before going to bat.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.