Vital Social Movement Promotes a New Vision of Sexuality in Older Age

Article excerpt

American culture contrives to deny older people sexual agency. The negative stereotypes that the media uses to portray older people (if at all) render aging adults to be powerless and silly - and certainly not sexy!

As people age into their 50s and beyond, it can become difficult for them to feel positive about sex and sexuality. They may have lost connection with their maleness or femaleness and the ability to be intimate with another. They may have forgotten that the human body is a wonderful source of pleasure.

The sexual scripts we learn in our youth do not support a positive vision of our sexuality as We age. We must acknowledge mat human beings are sexual from birth until death. As caregivers, we must work toward a new vision of sexuality for ourselves and for the older people in our care.

A NEW PATH TO HAPPINESS

I am 81 years old. I have been officially retired for 10 years from my occupation as a sexuality educator, but now I have found a new path: promoting a movement to validate older adults' rights to sexual health and happiness.

I started out on this path by teaching short courses on sexuality in middle and later life at community centers, men longer courses at the Academy of Lifelong Learning, University of Delaware. I coauthored a teaching manual, which showed educators how to help people learn the facts about sex and aging, examine dysfunctional scripts and envision ways to help _ aging adults accept the inevitable changes in bodies and relationships.

I continue to promote a holistic approach to sexuality through the Consortium on Sexuality and Aging (www. sexualityandaging.com), a New Jersey-based organization dedicated to enhancing the sexual health, knowledge and well-being of people in middle and later life. Our membership consists of professionals whose work addresses diverse aspects of sexuality and the challenges of sexuality and aging.

TWO GOOD REASONS

There are two strong reasons for people - both professionals and individuals - to join this new movement. The first reason is you. If you're lucky, someday you will be 80! But long before reaching that age, everyone needs to examine the sexual scripts they've learned - complete with all their strictures, restrictions and taboos - and decide whether or not they are relevant to their lives now and in the future.

There are many of these scripts, which become lodged firmly in our psyches (see "Seven Sexual Scripts: Myth and Truth", below). Many, if not most of them, can discourage the development of healmy sexuality as we age.

The second reason to jump into this new sexuality awareness movement is for the older persons in your care. As a healthcare professional, you must know how to address the sexual and intimacy issues for these people.

CAVEATS FOR CAREGIVERS

Healthcare staff who work with institutionalized adults report incidents involving elders' sexuality as being among the leading "problem behaviors" they encounter. Recently, I was asked to give a sexuality and intimacy workshop for staff at the continuing care retirement community where I live. A new male resident in our assisted living area had become the companion of a long-term resident. Both had moderate dementia.

Some staff members were uncomfortable when the couple held hands, hugged and kissed. They were embarrassed.. They thought this was improper behavior. More experienced staff, however, understood the comfort the couple received from their intimacy. The workshop addressed people's life-long need for intimacy and touch, and the health value of intimate expression in relationships. Participants also considered the need to carefully assess each partner's ability to consent to a relationship and intimacy.

If residents are competent to understand, consent to and choose a relationship, they should be free to engage in sexual activity especially as sexual contact has the potential to be physically and psychologically beneficial. …