Senior sex raises eyebrows

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By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
The news that sexual interest and activity doesn’t wane with the years may have shocked the kids and grandkids, but there are knowing nods and a few grumbles among the senior set and those who work with them.
A study of the sex lives of 3,005 men and women ages 57-85, published in August in the New England Journal of Medicine, sparked talk about such frisky behavior by those old enough to know better.

But the finding that more than a quarter of those up to age 85 reported having sex the previous year was not a surprise to Deb Choma, nurse administrator for 17 years at Shard Villa, an assisted-living center in Salisbury, Vt.

Seven years ago, she found herself grappling with the realities of senior sex. First, there was the granddaughter who found her grandmother in a compromising pose with a gentleman resident. Then a 1 a.m. phone call alerted her to staff members finding that a female visitor had stayed over in an older male resident’s room. They were discovered in the buff.

Now she asks new residents whether they are sexually active. Her new-employee training includes a section on sex. And Choma speaks at state conferences on “Sexuality in Long-term Care,” including testing for sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV.

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David Kyllo of the National Center for Assisted Living in Washington, D.C., says the fact that elders are sexually interested and active is “just not talked about widely.”

Neither is the flip side to the survey data, which shows that not everyone is getting in on the action. Though the study found that the prevalence of sexual activity declines with age, more than a quarter of even the youngest group (27% of those 57-64) did not have sex with a partner in the previous year. Among those 64-74, 47% didn’t; and among those 75-85, about three-quarters (74%) didn’t.

“Clearly there are people who are happy to sexually retire,” says Sandra Leiblum, director of the Center for Sexual and Relationship Health at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J. “There are people having full and loving lives without feeling the need to have often or frequent sex.”

Among those 75-85, just 38% of men and 17% of women reported sexual activity in the past year, notes John Bancroft, a Britain-based senior research fellow with the Kinsey Institute. “Age has quite an effect on sexuality, and it’s important to see that old people vary in this respect,” he says.

Psychologist and sociologist Lillian Rubin believes the study’s message is “Something is the matter with you if you’re not doing it,” says Rubin, author of 60 On Up: The Truth About Aging in America.

Women may become less interested in sex after menopause or because they are widowed or divorced and don’t have a partner, the study suggests. But lead author Stacy Tessler Lindau of the University of Chicago says her clinical experience as a gynecologist suggests attitudinal issues as well.

Older women came of age in a different era, when “in many cases, women were expected to service the needs of their men and for reproduction,” she says. “If they did not have pleasure in those kinds of experiences, some say ‘I was happy to be done with it.’ ”

Many women 75 and older are not interested in sex “but want a social partner, to dance with or go to dinner or the movies,” says Patty Jordan, assistant manager of the North County Senior Center in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

For men, it’s a very different story. Urologist Ridwan Shabsigh of Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., says men remain “sexually interested and active” into their 80s and 90s.

Estimates suggest more than 40million men worldwide have been able to continue sexual activity into their later years because of medications such as Viagra, Levitra or Cialis.

Prince Dunn, 69, a budget analyst in Colorado Springs, decided to try such drugs after his 17-year marriage ended in divorce. “I’ve been taking high blood pressure medication for a number of years, and I don’t think it affected me earlier,” but later it did, he says.

J. Donald Capra, a retired research physician, and his wife, Pat, 72, a retired clinical psychologist, have been married 49 years and “have an active and fulfilling sexual relationship,” says Capra, 70, of Oklahoma City. But he says the notion of retiring from sex is “extremely common.”

“My impression is a lot of people quite happily married, simply over a period of time, stopped having sex or only on special occasions,” he says. “It may not have been discussed, but it simply happens. It’s the way it is for them.”

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