Everyone knows that sex and romance are only for the young. Once we hit 50, the party’s over, right?
Come closer and we’ll whisper a naughty little secret: Older people still do it—in cars, boats, beds, and wherever else they can. Seriously. That adorable white-haired couple browsing the Metamucil aisle at the drugstore? According to a heap of new studies and surveys, they’re probably also enjoying an active sex life.
A recent New England Journal of Medicine survey of 3,000 Americans aged 57 to 85 found that the majority of people under 74 reported having regular sex. A recent AARP survey concluded that 85 percent of people aged 60 and up enjoy some sort of intimate experience, including sexual intercourse, once a week. It gets better: A National Council on Aging survey shows that, in a sample group of sexually active seniors (aged 60 and over), 74 percent of the men and 70 percent of the women find their sex lives more satisfying than when they were in their 40s.
Why is sexual health and aging becoming such a, well, hot topic?
Dr. Dennis Sugrue is a clinical psychologist, the founder of the Henry Ford Center for Human Sexuality, and the author of Sex Matters for Women: A Complete Guide for Taking Care of Your Sexual Self. He says it’s a matter of sheer numbers: the aging boomer factor.
“A growing percentage of the American population is over 50 and 60,” notes Sugrue. “We’re talking about a generation of people—the baby boomers—who were part of the sexual revolution in the ‘60s. It’s obvious from recent studies and the popularity of drugs like Viagra that these aging Americans are identifying sexuality as an important factor in their quality of life.”
Sounds natural enough. But you wouldn’t know it from watching popular movies, television, or leafing through most magazines. Remember Something’s Gotta Give with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson? The film subjected viewers to—gasp!—the spectacle of a woman in her 50s making love. Why would that sight be so unusual—let alone shocking?
“We live in a culture that worships youth,” says Sugrue. “As a result, there’s a tendency to marginalize the aging population. But the grayness on our heads doesn’t mean we’ve lost all of our testosterone and sexual drive; we’re still sensual beings who appreciate sexuality and eroticism. The need for sexual intimacy does not end at a certain age.”
Recognizing the need to educate people about the impact of aging on human sexuality and intimacy, Sugrue partnered with The Academy of Teaching and Leadership, under the leadership of Dr. Saul Cooperman, a former New Jersey Commissioner of Education (and new Sarasota resident), to produce Sex over Sixty, a four-and-a-half-hour DVD on aging and sexuality. It provides frank answers to the sexual questions of mature adults—from health-related problems to dating again after a loss or divorce.
According to Cooperman, the DVD “gives people the confidence to be the best lovers ever while addressing the fears, confusion and insecurities of aging with understanding, compassion and enthusiasm. We want to show people how this can be the most exciting time of your life as far as love, intimacy and sexuality are concerned. “
Cooperman, 71, says his interest in the subject grew a few years ago, after his beloved wife of 46 years died. In the months that followed, he found himself wondering if he would ever be able to be intimate with a woman again.
“I remember listening to a group of tennis buddies who were all talking about age-related sexual issues,” he says. “Some felt that their sexual lives were over. But that didn’t seem right to me. So I started doing a lot of research on the subject. That led to focus groups—and then to the creation of this documentary.
“This project recognizes that most Americans over 60 are sexually active, and that sex is a natural part of the human condition,” he continues. “Yet the sexual needs of those over 60 are often dismissed as insignificant.”
So what are some of the myths that surround aging and sexuality?
“Myth No. 1 is the belief that people outgrow their interest in sex,” says Sugrue. “Or that menopause marks the beginning of the end of a woman’s interest in sex. The evidence doesn’t support that. Just the opposite; research shows that at least two-thirds of the women surveyed said that their sexual interest and satisfaction increased after menopause. The freedom to enjoy a sexual relationship without fear of pregnancy or the restraints of parenting is a very large factor. Men and women in their 50s and 60s also report feeling more comfortable in their skin and more open to exploring and establishing fuller relationships.”
Another myth is that older men don’t find older woman sexy or attractive. “There’s a fascinating segment in the DVD in which men talk about what they’re looking for in terms of compatibility at this stage of their life,” says Sugrue. “They talk about finding someone who has shared the same life experiences. They’re more interested in exploring meaningful physical intimacy with women who are comfortable with their bodies. It has less to do with a wrinkle-free face than it has to do with a mature attitude, self-assurance and ease of being. That’s sexy; that’s hot.”
Sex Over Sixty explodes another myth: the notion that older people are immune to sexually transmitted diseases.
“Safe sex is not just a concern for the young,” says Sugrue. “Older people are at risk for sexually transmitted infections, especially women in their 50s and 60s who can become more susceptible to infection because of the thinning of the vaginal wall.” HIV, too, is a growing concern, he adds. “People don’t think that that nice retiree next door might pass along HIV, but it happens. Physicians are slower to identify symptoms of sexual disease in aging patients because they tend not to ask about sexual activity and might ignore such early HIV symptoms as aches and pains, figuring that’s part of the aging process.”
There are age-related obstacles to face, too. As we age, both men’s and women’s testosterone levels decline, which can lead to a loss of libido. And some sexual problems are caused by medical conditions and medications. But Sugrue adds that men and women can learn to override sexual problems, enhance libido and improve sexual desire through a variety of strategies.
“Intercourse is considered the gold standard in sex, but it’s not the only way to make love,” he says. “A couple can engage in very intense, very erotic sexual play without penetration. Touch is something we lose appreciation for because we view sex as genitally focused. Remember how magical it was when you first held someone’s hand? We lose that thrill as time goes on because we’re so focused on the act of penetration. The naked embrace—flesh against flesh—is a very powerful part of the erotic experience.” The term Sugrue uses is “outercourse”—heavy foreplay for its own sake, not as preparation for full intercourse. In Sugrue’s sexual mathematics, if you subtract the erection from the equation, the resulting sex life doesn’t have to be zero.
Sugrue says he is particularly inspired by the segment during which women speak openly about sexual desires, menopause, and their sexual concerns. “There’s a great passage where one woman says that she and her single friends have a pact that if one of them should die, the others will go and clean out the sex toys before her kids find them!” he says.
During the men’s focus group for Sex over Sixty, one man after the other spoke of a phenomenon they’ve experienced as they grew older. After decades of almost total focus on their erections and orgasms, they’re finally discovering the pleasure of giving pleasure—the joys of cuddling and getting “touchy-feely” with their partners. Love doesn't end with sex, they say. Love is more enduring than sex. Sex is the bonus—not the means to an end.
The DVD also explores effective ways to bridge the gap between loneliness, new relationships, loss, adult children and sexual desire for a new love.
As we age, sex can doubtlessly be a challenge. But the challenge is worth it, claim Cooperman and Sugrue, and, sometimes, half the fun. Where there’s a will, there’s a way—and if that means tapping into the savvy of medical specialists, why not? The autumn years can be years of adult pleasure in more ways than one. All it takes is the desire to throw away prejudice, talk openly, and follow your bliss with your partner. There’s every reason for older folks to stay sexually active—and for younger people to stay healthy. After all, they’ve got something to look forward to.
About Sex over Sixty: www.sexoversixty.org.
• In the 57-to-64 age group, 73 percent of couples have regular sex. Fifty-three percent of the couples in the 65-to-74 age group do, too.
• Two thirds of the 65-to-74 age group and 54 percent of the 75-to-85 age group report having sex at least two or three times a month.
• Nearly a quarter of sexually active septuagenarians and octogenarians report having sex once a week or more.
• Women of all ages are significantly less likely than men to report sexual activity. This is partly because they often outlive their partners.
• About half of sexually active senior men and women experience at least one sexual problem. Erectile problems affect 37 percent of men; 43 percent of sexually active women report low desire.
• Fourteen percent of the men questioned report using medication or supplements to improve sexual function.
SOURCE: The New England Journal of Medicine
Keeping Romance Alive
• Keep moving. Exercise builds flexibility, endurance and self-esteem. Sex is more fun if you’re fit.
• Eat healthy. Want to sing the body electric? Nutritious food supplies the energy.
• Maintain the mood—and talk to your doctor if necessary. Men with erectile dysfunction have a range of treatments, including surgical procedures, vacuum devices and medications. Women suffering from vaginal dryness can usually cure the problem with a quick trip to the drugstore. Effective water-based lubricants are available without prescription.