Sexuality and Intimacy- What's Aging Got to Do with It?

By Hoffer, Anita P. | Aging Today, July/August 2013 | Go to article overview

Sexuality and Intimacy- What's Aging Got to Do with It?


Hoffer, Anita P., Aging Today


Despite what the popular media might indicate, sexuality and in- timacy play an active role in our lives as we age.

There is an abundance of research, from the Journal of the American Medical Association to the Journal of Gerontologi- cal Nursing to the Wall Street Journal, showing sexual activity (whether part- nered or solo) is good for your health, even in later years. Engaging in sex can relieve stress, improve sleep, burn calo- ries, reduce certain forms of pain, ease depression, strengthen blood vessels and boost the immune system.

Defining the Indefinable

Sexuality is often linked directly to sexual acts or sexual orientation, but it is multi- faceted and has many definitions. Re- gardless of age, it is a core part of our identity, of how we live in our bodies, are attuned to our senses, revel in the plea- sure of beautiful music, a stunning sun- set, a loving touch or the smell of an ex- quisite flower. Sexuality includes body, mind and soul; it is omnipresent in every- thing we do.

Intimacy is how we share ourselves with others. This sharing may be sexual, or not. It may involve genital contact, or not. But at its most essential, it is about connecting with an "other," and as such is an expression of the universal human wish for connection.

Deeply satisfying, rewarding friend- ships can be forged in middle and late life without necessarily involving conven- tionally defined "sexual behaviors and activities." An encounter may be sexual but devoid of intimacy, or highly intimate but not at all sexual.

Does Age Affect Urge?

Age has little to do with urge. What we want sexually may change as we age (e.g., erogenous zones, patterns of desire and arousal), but for most healthy adults, in- terest in sexual pleasure doesn't disap- pear with age. Our capacity for pleasure does not die until we do.

However, by age 50 or so, most of us begin to notice changes in sexual drive and response. Typically, in men this may involve erectile concerns (75 percent of men older than 75 are affected), pro- longed refractory periods or problems with ejaculation. In women, common dif- ficulties are changes in orgasm, decreased tactile sensation or reduced lubrication that may result in painful intercourse and decreased libido.

These changes are not signs that we are losing our sexuality. Rather they are natural consequences of aging and need to be adjusted to, shared with our partner(s) and discussed with a health- care provider to overcome these difficul- ties when and if possible. Furthermore, these changes are not necessarily diseas- es; rather they may be side effects of med- ications or therapies for illnesses that commonly affect older adults.

Ageism and Societal Prejudice

Yet sex between older adults is often viewed with discomfort or even disgust. We live in an ageist society that assumes that adults are sexually "dead" after age 50-or should be. …

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