Senior Sexuality

Seniors' interest in sex never truly wanes  

What to know about this topic:

In the Comfort Life Spotlight

"We do know that people stay sexually active into their 90s," says Marie Carlson. Carlson is a Vancouver-based sexual health clinician who specializes in sexuality and seniors. "What people need to feel at any age," she adds, "is possibility." She advises that simple emotional contact like holding hands is just as important and exciting for seniors as it is for younger people. For some, sexuality can mean kissing and touching, but for others, "an important emotional connection can come down to things you do for each other."

Sexuality doesn't have a best before date

As a culture we are uncomfortable with the idea of aging and sexuality. However, there is a lot of evidence that seniors are very comfortable with their sexuality. A US survey in 2011 found that 54% of sexually active seniors between the ages of 75 and 85 were having sexual relations at least two to three times a month. Even more instructive, 23% of seniors in this same group were having sex at least once a week.

Senior sexuality in Canada is no different. A 1998 survey of Canadian seniors found that the great majority of people over 65 said that sex was still important to them. The majority surveyed also considered themselves sexually active.

Seniors in retirement homes can be just as sexual as people twenty or thirty years younger. In fact, survey results also show that older couples might indeed be having more sex than they did when they were younger, busier with careers and kids and more worried about the effects of an unwanted pregnancy.

Retirement home design and staff need to be mindful of this with respect to security and privacy. As Katherine Tindle, a Vancouver seniors home resident says, she and her husband are still very interested in each other and "If we didn’t have privacy we wouldn’t be here!"

Sex and aging is not without its challenges of course. Aging men do have more problems with erectile dysfunction and women may experience dryness but both of these can be remedied. In addition, there are a number of health factors that can reduce the desire for or response to sexuality for seniors. Seniors who are healthy and active tend to be more sexual. Some factors that need to be minded include:

Stories from retirement communities

The Tindles
Phillip and Katherine Tindle started out as high school sweethearts. "Got a little more serious at university," says Phillip. "Her father was a professor of mine in forestry. I thought it would be a good idea if I got engaged at that point as I was having him for three more courses. He might not flunk his son-in-law."

It was love, not grades, that kept this active couple together. They've been married 62 years, most recently as residents of Tapestry at the O'Keefe—Arbutus Walk in Vancouver's charming Kitsilano neighbourhood. Both say common interests have kept them happy. "Looking after our four kids for one thing," says Katherine. "Playing tennis and skiing—the usual things people do." Clearly, they're still very interested in each other. Asked if they enjoyed much privacy at Tapestry, Katherine quickly says, "Absolutely. If we didn't have privacy, we wouldn't be here!"

The Tindles have found there's more time for each other when the staff is looking after you too. "They know your name after the second day you've been in the place," says Phillip. "My wife and I drink milk, and before our backsides hit the chair, our milk is on the table."

The Pembletons
Love and companionship are a vital part of life and are also good for your health.

“Treat people like human beings and what goes around comes around.” That’s one element of Don Pembleton’s secret to living a full and rich life—a mantra that has seen him through many ups and downs over the last 92 years. The other cornerstone is having a loving wife and partner, Lela, to share his life journey with—and that has made all the difference.

Strong bonds of love and small gestures of intimacy are exactly what we all need to stay happy and healthy, according to Michele Cauch, executive director of Sage Health Network. “The desire to love and to be loved never goes away; we always have it throughout our life. That emotional connection is what leads to happiness and overall well-being, whether we’re 18 or 80.” There are many physical and mental benefits too: on top of potentially curbing diseases related to depression and diminished mental capacity, “companionship and closeness can give us such incredible comfort.”

Just look at the Pembletons. Don swept Lela off her feet the day they met—on a dance floor 74 years ago—so it was only fitting that they celebrated 73 years of marriage this year with great music, good food and 70 of their closest friends and family at their Kensington Village residence. “We love music and love to dance and enjoy life. That’s all we do!” says Don. And they always do it together. As Lela explains: “We’re not sitting at home... where he goes, I go, and where I go, he goes... If I had to do it over again, I would do it all the same!”

So even if your fiery tango has turned into a romantic waltz, the dance is still more enjoyable, and possibly healthier, with a partner.

Art and Evelyn Roberts.
At 90 and 83 years of age, respectively, the Roberts will soon celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. They dated for six years before tying the knot, and today they live at Beechwood Place retirement residence in Mississauga, Ontario.

Art and Evelyn agree that marriage, companionship and romance become even more important as the years go by. "There's nothing worse than being alone, especially when you get to our ages," Evelyn says. "You need companionship."

Unions like Art and Evelyn's are increasingly common as seniors shake off the notion that love and age don't mix.

"There are quite a few couples here at Beechwood and that's great because they keep one another company," Evelyn says.

Some senior romantics must contend with family complaints over their new relationships, but the Robertses enjoy great support from Evelyn's two daughters and two granddaughters. "Art is very sweet, and sometimes I think my daughters and grandchildren like spending time with him even more than me," says Evelyn jokingly.

Romance vs. Sex

Romance is one thing, but sex is another. Today's seniors came of age in a conservative era, when sex for pleasure was widely thought of as a sin. That means many seniors aren't comfortable discussing their sexuality with partners or with health professionals.

And while this discomfort is more understandable among older people, younger generations have a surprisingly negative attitude toward the love lives of their elders. Despite enjoying significant sexual liberty themselves, many younger Canadians look upon seniors' sexual desire as either non-existent or unnatural.

Mary Cooley is the Nova Scotia representative to the National Advisory Council on Aging and the author of "Sex Over Sixty," which appeared in the spring 2002 edition of the council's quarterly bulletin.

"Human sexuality is part of life," she says. "But when it comes to seniors, despite the fact that the 30- and 40-year-old age groups are wonderful people, I think they ignore us.

"The subject of sex after 60 isn't addressed by the mainstream. Today, we know that men in their 90s are still willing and able, but I've heard the snicker-snicker about relationships in nursing homes and I don't think it should be snicker-snicker. Why should it be treated any differently than a younger romance?"

The same attention to detail that can help seniors maintain independence in other ways - large print books or single-level living, for example - is also given to helping seniors in the bedroom.
Nicole Richmond is a registered occupational therapist with experience helping seniors maintain an independent love life. "You need to assess people's entire health and well-being and part of that is considering their sexual sides," she says. "I don't know a number or an age where those things don't matter anymore. Are you just supposed to turn those things off?

"It's not just sex. It's also emotional and spiritual health."

According to Richmond, some seniors' care communities don't deal with sexuality badly - they just don't deal with it at all. "It's not addressed. Many health professions discuss things like spirituality and sexuality in theory, but often in practice people shy away from it unless the clients identify it themselves," she says. "Attitude is the bigger issue. More and more I hope to find ways to include methods of practice that are respectful and tactful but help seniors to address this issue if they want to."

But an even more difficult barrier to romance in the golden years than social mores is gender differences. Among seniors aged 65 to 69, there are 93 men per 100 women. From age 85 onwards, this number drops to approximately 44 per 100. The result is that available senior men are a hot commodity.

"There's a dearth of available gentlemen but the competition among our female residents is very ladylike," says Pat Tooze, the administrator of Bayview Retirement Home in Belleville, Ontario. Tooze agrees that a relationship can add years to a person's life. "Especially for our widowed gentlemen, finding someone else who cares and whom you can care about is very comforting," she says. "And after many happy years of marriage, some men aren't interested in playing the field. But occasionally we have an older widowed gentleman who's thrilled to squire different ladies around."

The chemistry among Tooze's residents also adds to the atmosphere at Bayview. "Regardless of age, it's always fun to see the ladies giving every new gentlemen the once-over."

Whether they live alone or in some form of assisted living, couples like Art and Evelyn are dispelling the myth that old age is lonely. With the liberal baby boomers moving closer to senior citizenship every day, retirement communities may soon assume a whole new reputation for excitement. 

Comfort Life is your source for a wide variety of information about life inside retirement homes.

More for your information

Affectionately Yours Sexual activity reaps unexpected benefits By Brian O'Grady

How common is romance among seniors? According to the 2001 Canadian Sexual Health Survey, more than 92 per cent of respondents said sex is an important part of life - and responses from men and women were about the same. The percentage declined with age, but at 65, a large majority said sex was still important. And a majority of those between 65 and 74 considered themselves sexually active. Perhaps these seniors know how good sexual activity is for their health. Take a look at the benefits of affection:

• Sex burns fat and causes the brain to release endorphins, naturally occurring chemicals that act as painkillers and reduce anxiety.

• In men, sex seems to stimulate the release of growth hormones and testosterone, which strengthens bones and muscles.

• In both men and women, sex also seems to prompt the release of substances that bolster the immune system.

• Sexual activity relieves physical stress and reinforces positive emotions.

• Research suggests that sex about three times a week can slow aging and prevent wrinkles around the eyes.

Above all, exercise, maintain a healthy weight and stay positive and you will maintain a healthy interest in sex as you age.

Want one more story? Read about Cam and Virginia's retirement home romance

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