Love in Later Life
What is it about sex that it spawns so many myths and misconceptions? Among the largest is that sex ceases in the older half of life. Our prevailing youth-oriented, age-rejecting attitude is that as soon as a person ages past what we culturally-define as sexy, he or she ceases to be sexual. White hair is not considered sexy. But aging doesn’t stop people from being human, and sexuality is a human trait, not just a youthful one.
As a normal middle-aged person matures in a healthy and proper way, interest in sex and the strength of sexual desire are supposed to, according to the myth, gradually wane and gracefully fall away. But the myth isn’t specific on when sexual interest should fall away; perhaps mature adults should no longer want sex once they reach 65, the retirement age. Fifty-five is beyond mid-life; maybe this is a good time for sex to stop. Certainly sex after 80 is unthinkable. If you are younger than 40, at what age do you plan to retire your genitals? Sexuality has no expiration date. The assumption is that older men’s penises don’t work and older women have no interest in sex. Do older adults remain interested in sex? Just ask the staff in a nursing facility. Those who care for the elderly witness regularly that some seniors, those who even are in the throes of decline, remain sexual. In nursing facilities, special rules and privacy laws are necessary to protect seniors’ freedom of sexual expression because sexuality is alive and well.
Perhaps contributing to the myth that sex disappears with age, is the sad truth that as relationships collect years, many partners grow bitter and disconnected as resentments and other toxic emotions accumulate. If not repaired, unhappy relationships do not maintain the emotional connection vital to support a passionate sex life while partners are at risk for joining the legions of sexless unions. Far easier it is to attribute the lack of sex to more visible aspects of aging, such as physical decline, than it is to the invisible accumulation of negative emotion. The truth is that active sexuality helps to ward off the deterioration of aging more than aging trumps interest in sex.
If sex were just a physical act, then as a body ages and vitality declines the assumptions about loss of sexual interest may make sense. But sex is far more than just a physical act. It is a means and method for delivering love; it is connection, care, loving touch and pleasure. Why would anyone, old or young, not want these?
The attitude that sex should only be associated with the young would be reasonable if sex’s sole purpose was reproduction. My non-scientific opinion, based on conversations with hundreds of couples, is that people’s choice to be sexual rarely considers reproduction, except to prevent it with contraception. Sex is more commonly associated with bonding, a need of both the young and the mature.
With aging, illness and physical limitations do effect an increasingly larger percentage of the population. Some people lose their ability to sexually function fully. Both illnesses which contribute to suffering and decline and the medications used to treat them often interfere with desire and sexual functioning. Many mature adults do their best to remain active while adjusting and adapting. Instead of expecting perfect sex limited adults prioritize the pleasure of care, patience, and warmth in their sexual play in place of more physically-based performance considerations. In some ways this shift from physically-based to more emotional-based experience marks a qualitative improvement.
Older adults, as sexual beings, have advantages over their younger counterparts. Older bodies have long since departed from the magazine ideal, so more experienced people are free from body image concerns. Mature adults have had longer lives in which to accept and embrace sexuality, so the embarrassment factor is less potent. Knowing themselves, mature adults are better able to relax. And finally, mature adults have had more practice, and may be more highly skilled lovers while better able to enjoy. For those of you who are younger, do not fret about losing your sex lives as you age. Don’t buy into this myth. If you maintain your health, as you age the quality of your sexual experiences may just improve. Andrew Aaron, LICSW