By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Can older adults enjoy sexual intimacy?
Local experts say yes.
“Barring any physical ailment, they can have sex,” said Rita Worlock, licensed clinical marriage and family therapist practicing in North Syracuse and Ithaca. “I’ve had some folks come in with hip issues and they still have very healthy sex lives and are very intimate. It’s a case-by-case dependant situation.”
She said that many problems with intimacy can be solved with communication — even the physical ones, such as women who experience difficulty because of vaginal dryness or men with erection problems, because keeping the conversation about sex as honest and open means the couple feels free to seek help without embarrassment.
While they may not experience sex in the same way as when they were younger, many older adults can enjoy their time together.
Vaginal atrophy represents a common issue for older women, as age or lack of use can make intimacy difficult, but taking more time and using an over-the-counter lubrication can remedy the problem.
When physical problems make sex hard, they should talk with a doctor, who may counsel on various physical issues. Medication, for example, can inhibit satisfying intimacy. Doctors can also discuss ways to combat these problems.
“The rule of thumb is to ‘rule out organic before the psychiatric,’” said Jim Feinberg, licensed clinical social worker and clinical hypnotherapist in private practice in Syracuse.
He said that a primary health care provider usually obtains a sexual health history, including any sexually transmitted diseases. Once physical problems are ruled out, the provider may refer to a mental health care provider. Non-medical issues can create barriers to intimacy, such as sex drive.
“It can help someone embrace where they are physically and emotionally,” Feinberg said. “It’s worth trying to solve for people who aren’t sexual. There can be a lot of grief and loss. You peel back so many layers to get to what’s going on.
“I encourage more feeling, less thinking when it comes to sex. People can over-think about it and focus only on what’s negative in a relationship. Focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have. Give each other permission to feel. What are you willing to do to make positive change?”
Older adults who have lost a spouse through death or divorce may feel finding someone new is daunting, especially for people who had been married for decades.
“Do they want to take the risk of someone else dying?” Feinberg said. “We need a picture of the whole person to heal the whole person.”
Older people who are interested in intimacy won’t experience unwanted pregnancy; however, they have same risk of sexually transmitted disease as a sexually active person of any age.
“One of the HIV ranges is people 50-plus,” Feinberg said. “Their doctors are not talking with them about sex. A lot of providers think people 70-plus are not sexual. There’s a large segment going untreated for STDs. It’s a population that’s so underserved.”
Using condoms provides 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.