By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Can older adults enjoy sexual intimacy?
Local experts say yes.
“Many people remain sexually active well into their 80s and 90s and beyond,” said physician Pebble Kranz, who operates the Rochester Center for Sexual Wellness. “Humans need physical intimacy, touch and pleasure from cradle to grave.”
She said that the risk of heart attack from sex is very small. But for some older adults, issues with mobility, pain and desire increase with age. Despite these problems, “there is clear evidence that as people mature they become less anxious and bothered by these issues,” Kranz said. “Vibrant older adults figure out how to keep their erotic selves alive by continuing to nurture their sexuality.”
While they may not experience sex in the same way as when they were younger, many older adults can enjoy their time together.
When physical problems make sex hard, they should talk with a doctor, who may counsel on various physical issues. Kranz said. Medication, for example, can inhibit satisfying intimacy. Doctors can also discuss ways to combat thin vaginal tissue, vaginal dryness, erectile dysfunction or other problems.
“If you feel like you’ve hit a dead end with your primary care doctor, urologist, gynecologist, oncologist or other medical provider, then you may want to seek out the help of a sexual medicine specialist,” Kranz said. “Most medical problems should not get in the way of satisfying sex.
“While one does need to respect one’s physical limitations, there are very few medical issues that get in the way of enjoying some kind of physical intimacy,” Kranz said.
Non-medical issues can create barriers to intimacy, such as older adults who have lost a spouse through death or divorce. Finding someone new can daunt people who have been married for decades and feel out of place dating again.
John David Eichenberger, licensed mental health counselor practicing at Hope and Health Counseling in Fairport, said that older people suddenly single may not “know the ‘rules’ of dating or the expectations. You’re also out of practice with the old rules. I’d say that makes people feel lost and like they don’t know how to pursue that aspect of life.”
He advises people of all ages to engage in honest communication to develop a relationship, a trait that seems to come more naturally to older adults who generally don’t bother with emotional games. Some relish the chance to woo and romance a new love, but it’s also normal to not feel interest in physical relationships.
“There’s a lot of belief that it should be part of life that’s abandoned,” said Eichenberger. “I don’t know how much expectation feeds into their behavior.”
According to the sources interviewed for this story, older people who are interested in intimacy don’t have to worry about unwanted pregnancy; however, they have same risk of sexually transmitted disease as a sexually active person of any age. Using condoms provide a measure of protection against many sexually transmitted diseases; however, the only foolproof way to avoid them is to only engage in sex in a mutually monogamous relationship with someone who does not have any infections.
Study: 10% of People 85-plus Still Do It
According to “Older Adults and Sexual Health: A Guide for Aging Services Providers,” a study published by ACRIA last year, many older adults are engaging in intimacy. The New York City-based organization promotes HIV research and education. ACRIA is a leading international HIV/AIDS research, education, and prevention organization based in New York City.
Their survey indicates that 75 percent of those between the ages of 57 and 64 state that they’re sexually active. Of those between 65 and 74, more than half engage in sex. Over one-quarter of people 75 to 85 do.
For those over 85, the number drops to 10 percent for women and remains at 25 percent for men, according to data compiled by Dr. David Lee, a researcher from Manchester University’s School of Social Sciences, and professor Josie Tetley, from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, which was published in February 2017.
Perhaps indicative of America’s tendency towards ageism and youth obsession, little data exists from American sources on intimacy for people 85-plus.