Let's face it - no one wants to visualize older people having sex... but why not? I for one hope that I am never too old to enjoy a romp in the hay!
Sexual intimacy among older Americans is a subject that people don't talk about much. The silence, say experts, allows misconceptions to flourish -- including the widespread assumption that seniors lose interest in sex and are, or should be, asexual.
"There is no age limit on sexuality and sexual activity," reports Stephanie A. Sanders, PhD, associate director of the sexual research group The Kinsey Institute. While the frequency or ability to perform sexually will generally decline modestly as seniors experience the normal physiological changes that accompany aging, reports show that the majority of men and women between the ages of 50 and 80 are still enthusiastic about sex and intimacy.
"Use it or lose it," says geriatrics expert Walter M. Bortz, 70, author of three books on healthy aging as well as several studies on seniors' sexuality. Dr. Bortz, a professor at Stanford Medical School, is past president of the American Geriatrics Society and former co-chair of the American Medical Association's Task Force on Aging.
"If you stay interested, stay healthy, stay off medications, and have a good mate, then you can have good sex all the way to the end of life," he says. A Duke University study shows that some 20 percent of people over 65 have sex lives that are better than ever before, he adds.
And although not everyone wants or needs an active sex life, many people continue to be sexual all their lives. "There's strong data all over: It's a matter of survival," says Dr. Bortz. "People that have sex live longer. Married people live longer. People need people. The more intimate the connection, the more powerful the effects."
A clear majority of men and women age 45 and up say a satisfying sexual relationship is important to the quality of life, according to a survey by the AARP (the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons). Among 45- to 59-year-olds with sexual partners, some 56 percent said they had sexual intercourse once a week or more. Among 60- to 70-year-olds with partners, 46 percent of men and 38 percent of women have sex at least once a week, as did 34 percent of those 70 or older.
Similar findings emerged in a survey conducted by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA). The study found that nearly half of all Americans age 60 or over have sex at least once a month and that nearly half also wanted to have sex more frequently. Another finding: people find their mates more physically attractive over time.
As for making love, it just gets better with age, according to Cornelia Spindel, 75, who married her husband Gerald when she was 72. They met when Gerry Spindel took his wife, who was dying of Alzheimer's, to a kosher nutrition program where Cornelia, a widow, worked as a volunteer. The two gradually became close friends, and after his wife's death, became intimate. When Gerald proposed, she accepted with pleasure. Now, Cornelia says, "We feel like young lovers or newlyweds. I felt like I was able to make love better when I was 30 than when I was 20, and now I have a whole lifetime of experience."
Her 75-year-old husband agrees, and dislikes the patronizing attitude many people display toward older people who are intimate. "Whenever people ask us how long we've been married, we say 'two years,' and they say, 'Oh, that's so cute.' We're 'cute?!' What does that mean?"
The physical changes that occur with age can give older people a chance to revitalize their lovemaking by focusing more on intimacy and closeness instead of sex alone. Often less preoccupied with performance, they can express their affection and closeness in other ways, such as cuddling, kissing, and stroking.
"Sex is being warm and caring; sex isn't just sex," says Christopher Rhoades,* 66, a San Francisco Bay Area college professor who's been married for 18 years. "It feels good to lay next to a naked woman's body."
As he grows older, Rhoades says he doesn't feel the "compulsion" to have sex as much as he did when he was younger. With a grown son still living at home, he says he makes love less often than he'd like but still enjoys it very much. "There's a great beauty in the freedom from necessity. Sex becomes more a matter of choice and is more interesting and intriguing for each partner," he says.
But among older women who are widowed, divorced, or single, finding a partner can be difficult. According to several reports, women make up the majority of the elderly without partners. The reasons: women live longer than men, and healthy older men tend to pair up with younger women. Older women are also judged by society as less attractive than their male counterparts, a double standard that women's groups have long decried.
This "partner gap" greatly inhibits women's social and sexual activity as they reach their senior years. In the AARP study, only 32 percent of women 70 or older have partners, compared with 59 percent of men in the same age group. In the NCOA study, older men are more likely than older women to be married and have sex partners.
For men, "biology or hydraulics" is the biggest impediment to sex later in life, says Dr. Bortz. "For women, it's opportunity and availability."