As someone who writes about aging and who is a truthteller, I am often asked about sex in the older years. I’ll start with Robert Browning who said, “Grow old with me! The best is yet to be.” There is more than that, of course, to be said about sex in your seventies and beyond. Here are my answers to the questions about sex that I get asked most often.
Q. Is it normal for people over 70 to be interested in sex?
A. Human beings are hard wired for sex. Here in the US, while the media is flooded with sexual content, there is a widespread belief that sex is only for the young and beautiful. If an older man expresses any interest in sex, he may be called “a dirty old man.” And, according to the writer Erica Jong, women over sixty often get the message that they are “supposed to be grandmothers and retreat into serene sexlessness.” In fact, sex never disappears, it just changes forms as the years roll by. Some of us remain sexually active into our eighties and nighties. Georgia O’Keefe was 95, for example, when she had a lover who was a 35 year old man. Others stop having sex at sixty.
Efforts to be more open and honest about sexuality has been a struggle for a long time, maybe forever. We have a heritage from our Puritan ancestors which leaves many of us ashamed of being sexual, especially as we age. Many, if not most people in the 70+ generation, are uncomfortable talking about sex.
Q. How many old people are actually sexually active?
A. If you define sexually active as have sexual intercourse, here are the numbers, according to David Lee, a researcher at the University of Manchester’s School of Social Sciences in 2015. About 54% of men over 70 and 31% of women over 70 are sexually active. Many older men develop erectile dysfunction because of health issues or the medications they take. And many women, also, have health issues that affect their interest in sexual intercourse. Not having any partner or an interested partner also plays into these statistics. But that is a very narrow definition of sexually active. There are many ways to be sexual without having intercourse.
Q. How is the sex in the 70+ generations different from the sex of young people?
A. One doctor put it this way, “Sex in the eighties is all about intimacy. There are very few one night stands among the people here at my retirement community.” Sex in the years after 70 has more sex play — kissing, cuddling and holding each other than the sex of earlier decades. Sex among older people is less frequent than in their younger days and the feelings are less intense. Also, 70+ people report that their daily lives are not as dominated by sexual thoughts and desire as when they were in their youth.
But, interestingly, the levels of satisfaction with their sex lives are high among older people, especially among women in their 80’s. I think part of the explanation for that lies in the fact that there are so many older people who have lost their partner. People who are lucky enough to be in a happy relationship are enormously grateful.
Today younger people have sex earlier than the 70+ generation which grew up before the pill. But sex is always complicated. Young people face an amazing array of sexual orientations and possibilities that were not supported for my generation: straight and gay, binary and non-binary and transgender. Sorting out who they are can still be difficult despite the information and resources that exist. Hooking up and casual sex do not seem to lead to joy and peace of mind.
Q. What about sex and all the single older people?
A. Many older people do not have a partner — that is just a fact. There are a variety of ways that people handle this situation. Some are not interested in sex any longer. Some are interested and admit how much they miss being touched. Many older singles find they get great pleasure from getting a massage while others find joy in cuddling with their cats and dogs. There is an old saying that “Grandchildren are the romance of old age.”
And it is true many older people get enormous joy from the time spent with their grandchildren who are often available for frequent hugs and cuddles. Then there is always masturbation. For some this is a solution. And some people look for a new partner. They may start visiting online sites such as Silver Singles and Our Time. In my observation old friends and class reunions turn out to be the very best places to find a new love.
Q. What do you mean by intimacy?
A. People in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, use the word intimate as a synonym for sexual intercourse. They say, for example, “We have not been intimate for two months.” When 70+ people talk about intimacy they usually mean something quite different - for them, intimacy is the whole experience of closeness with their partner. Intimacy requires having a relationship and taking the time to evolve and deepen it. It takes close attention in the same way it takes time and care to create a fine wine or a beautiful garden. It takes being vulnerable in the relationship and having the courage to show our true selves and our deepest feelings. John O’Donahue, an Irish poet, wrote that, “Intimacy is of the soul and the soul is reserved.”
For me, my new love was slow to arrive. I had been in a support group with Peter for two years before we became a couple. We had gotten to know each other when were unguarded and too sad to make any effort to try to impress each other. It began to change the night we went to a dance. Now Peter is on a walker so we couldn’t actually dance. But we did hold each other and sway to the music. And we began to see each other differently. And our relationship shifted. Over the next months, we gradually became a couple. Since I had already shown my true colors in our support group days, it was too late to try to be anything but myself. And what a gift that was!
I often use a story about Maggie and Griffin to illustrate what I mean about intimacy and older couples.
Maggie and Griffin are both 90 years old. Maggie has crippling arthritis and Griffin has trouble walking as well. Last winter while in Florida they went to the beach one day. They parked their car at a spot where five young men riding huge motorcycles were taking a break. Maggie, using two canes, and Griffin, hobbling along on one, made their way slowly across the soft and shifting sand. When they reached the water, Griffin tucked all three canes into his bathing suit and they gradually made their way out to the deeper water. For half an hour, holding each other tightly, they bobbed happily in the gentle waves. Then they slowly made their way back to their car.
The motorcycle guys were still there. One of them called to them, “You know, just watching the two of you go swimming makes me look forward to growing old.” The guy recognized Maggie and Griffin’s closeness. He witnessed their intimacy and their joy just in being together. It was not all about sex but it was not without sex either.
May all of us recognize the possibilities for love and intimacy to the end of our days. And maybe for sex as well.