Elder Wisdom: Where’s the Sex?

A few days ago, I received a very interesting inquiry from Jo Giese. You may have heard of Jo, who is a noted author and journalist. Her remarkable and moving caregiving story on This American Life made an impression on many people.

Jo raised a point that I must admit stopped me in my tracks – one of those head-smacking moments where you ask yourself: “Why didn’t I think of that?”  She wrote:

I saw you interviewed on TV and got your book.  I’m enjoying it and look forward to giving it to my 96-year-old mother, who could very easily have been one of your experts.

However, I was disappointed in one huge omission:  the discussion of sexuality and aging.  If folks are nervous about aging and death, they are also often nervous about the potential loss of sexuality as they age.  However, studies show that as long as people have a partner they can continue to have a satisfactory, if different from when they were younger, sexual life.

Jo is of course absolutely right. Research evidence summarized by the American Psychological Association demonstrates that sex by no means “stops at 60,” and that many elders remain sexually interested and engaged throughout their lives. As the National Institute on Aging puts it: “Many people want and need to be close to others as they grow older. This includes the desire to continue an active, satisfying sex life as they grow older.”

So: Why doesn’t the issue show up in the Legacy Project interviews, and in my book, 30 Lessons for Living, based on the 1200 elders in the project? I’ve been pondering that question since receiving Jo’s message, and maybe you readers can help me.

In doing the interviews and writing the book, I was committed to letting the elders drive the process. In our initial pilot studies, we asked people in an open-ended way for their lessons. Then we took those themes, and used them to guide the surveys we conducted.

And sex – as part of a lesson for living or advice for the young – just didn’t come up. It didn’t make the top 30 list of lessons to pass on to future generations. In fact, it didn’t make any list at all. When it came up, it was often downgraded in importance. For example, when Stanley, 84, was considering a second marriage, he told me that he wanted someone who was “touchy – someone who isn’t afraid to be touched and to touch back. I’m not talking about sex; I’m talking about affection.”

When I asked: “What advice would you give for finding a mate and staying married” only a handful of people mentioned sexual compatibility or a good sex life, and typically it was at the end of the list that included sharing similar values, liking one another’s family, communicating, and not “keeping score” in the relationship.

So why no sex? The topic is striking in its absence.

One hypothesis might be that the topic was too sensitive, but I don’t think so. The elders were certainly honest about everything else! They talked about severe marital problems, betrayal, and divorce. The also opened up about their financial situations, about child-rearing problems, and about death (considered to be another highly taboo topic). I would add that one of our interviewers was a woman in her late sixties, with whom older women would presumably feel comfortable – and they didn’t mention sexuality in their life lessons to her, either.

A second possibility is that sexuality in this generation is more “taken for granted” and treated less as a problem to be solved than it is in contemporary culture.

Or third, people may simply have felt that this was not a topic on which they had concrete advice to share. It may not have seemed to be an issue on which they could advise the young. Or at their stage of life, the benefits of companionship and friendship in marriage are more salient, and so they highlighted these themes.

Readers: I need your help. Any thoughts on why, among so many topics, the hundreds of elders we interviewed did not include sexuality in their advice for future generations? Please weigh in! Take a look at the comments below – do you agree?



14 thoughts on “Elder Wisdom: Where’s the Sex?

  1. I am a 75 year old male and have lived alone for a very long time. My life is reasonably happy, but sharing a life with another person would need to enhance what I already have.. A life without sexual activity is my preference. I know the right person is out there somewhere if I decided to seek them out. Old habits never die, as they say.

  2. I feel sorry that the subject of sex is left out of our discussions about aging. It is my experience and opinion that sex can remain a big part of aging with a loving partner until.the end…..we find ways of satisfying one another which may differ from what we once knew, but it is very comfortable and extremely pleasurable.
    If we can let go of old ideas about whats ”proper’ and just enjoy, then why not? What could be wrong with that?
    I know that it makes my life so much more complete and meaningful.

  3. I would guess that ‘sex on its own’ the way it is often understood today, like just another activity that can be perfected to increase pleasure in our lives just doesn’t hold that much intrinsic value when viewed through one’s life course. In a good, honest, caring, touchy relationship, sex is natural and meaningful and doesn’t need to be made into an issue. I would think that all of the advice that applies to a good relationship also applies to good sex in the long term. Sex doesn’t need all the attention and drama that’s attached to it today.

  4. Let’s face it, sex is not the same as it was 30 years ago. Probably, the reason no one mentions the subject, maybe the fact that it is different for everyone, even 30 years ago. For me, (is there a gender difference?) sex has always been at the core of who I am, and the diminished frequency is discouraging. But then I remember, that at least I am still sexually active.

  5. Hi,

    I don’t know why the subject didn’t come up but I was struck by the absence of sex and aging in your book. I wrote the following review for Amazon to give my personal experience.

    Regards, Bob

    As all of the previous reviewers have indicated, this book contains many interesting, and perhaps even useful, ideas on how to live life to the fullest; at the advanced age of 75, I found a few nuggets from other people’s experience that entranced me. (I might even put a few of them to use.)

    But, there is absolutely nothing about sex and aging in this book. How can that be? Does it put in question the entire premise of the book?

    According to the author: “In doing the interviews and writing the book, I was committed to letting the elders drive the process. In our initial pilot studies, we asked people in an open-ended way for their lessons. Then we took those themes, and used them to guide the surveys we conducted.

    “And sex – as part of a lesson for living or advice for the young – just didn’t come up. It didn’t make the top 30 list of lessons to pass on to future generations. In fact, it didn’t make any list at all. When it came up, it was often downgraded in importance.”

    According to the National Institute on Aging: “Many people want and need to be close to others as they grow older. This includes the desire to continue an active, satisfying sex life as they grow older.”

    So, here’s my take, after 75 years of living a wonderfully satisfying and happy life, one with its share of challenges and difficulties, but one in which sex was a great source of joy — and the following essay focuses only on that part of my life.

    When I was quite young, I came across a pamphlet about sex written by a religious group, which chose life partners for their kids at quite an early age. The pamphlet described how important a long lasting, fulfilling sex life was to both partners, and described an approach that I adopted with great personal success.

    The authors pointed out that men and women biologically have very different reactions: men’s physical reactions tend to be short, intense, relatively superficial emotionally, while women’s tend to be much longer, perhaps equally or even more intense, deeper emotionally. The goal of the pamphlet was to encourage men to engage in extensive foreplay and after play, while letting the actual play take care of itself. It was addressed to young women, as well, seeking to help them help their partners. As I remember, young couples during their engagement period would sleep together in a bed with a board down the middle. Anything except actual intercourse was permitted, in fact, encouraged by the parents of the engaged couple.

    I followed that advice while courting my wife (without using a board, of course), and after several months of “practice”, we decided to get married and continue the physical relationship in much the same way. It was magical during the first eight years of that marriage, and very sustaining during the next 34 years, when she fought hard against a brain tumor, that had many devastating negative effects on both our lives.

    During the last ten years, we were unable to engage in “actual play”, but we continued foreplay and after play with great enjoyment. Both of us remained strictly monogamous during our entire marriage, and often shared our memories of our earlier experiences with great pleasure. Those memories were especially important during the ten years that I acted as her full time caregiver, as she lost more and more physical function.

    I can also report that my own physical pleasure was greatly enhanced by my the vicarious pleasure I derived from her physical and emotional reactions to our love making.

    After her death 18 months ago, I spent a period of intense mourning, and then started dating again. Concerns about the privacy of my partner forbid me from sharing more than that information.

    But, my advice to young people would have a very strong component on the importance of a fulfilling physical relationship in my life and, I believe, in the lives of my partner. The positive results are manifold, everything from a rewarding physical life in other realms to developing over a long period of time a deeper and deeper emotional relationship. In particular, that relationship helped us become more and more interdependent during the final stages of her illness.

    There were other important life messages that impacted my life, but finding and nurturing a satisfying physical relationship ranks very high on my personal scale.

    Of course, your mileage may very.

    Robert C. Ross
    February 2012

  6. In my view, the key to a great relationship is spirituality. A bond together. A deep connection not only with your partner(s) but with yourself. Another important part is the emotional and mental connection. A joining of the hearts and minds of people. Knowing, understanding, caring. The least important part is the physical. The sex, the making of the breakfast, the washing,..etc.
    In a great relationships, doing the physical activities with your partner(s) in conjunction with your heart, mind and spirit tells more about who you are inside as a human that how strong,active or good looking you are.
    In my view.

  7. There is a biological rationale for why sexual compatibility was not that important in the overall life picture for older Americans. Once menopause occurs, and even during perimenopause which can begin in the early 40’s in females, female sex hormones diminish significantly. Men’s sex hormones don’t diminish as rapidly in middle age, but they too diminish in old age. Sexual satisfaction is very important in the early decades of marriage, when the sex hormones are strongest and when the biological purpose of the sex hormones is reproduction. Physical affection and touch are very important throughout life, but the sex act is not as important. Old people might also have the attitude “Been there Done That” with regard to sex, after probably experiencing hundreds of sex acts over their lifetime. And they know that other things are of more enduring importance.

  8. You may have people who have been through things like cancer. Ovarian cancer, for example, I am a survivor, left me with a complete abdominal hysterectomy. That part of my body is gone….very sad to say. Many of us may feel our bodies, overall, are not that attractive anymore. We are not all retired, and working tires me out, but it’s required. My husband has diabetes, HPB, high cholesterol, and all this changes his ability to perform sex. I am not convinced of the safety of viagara and the like. When I read about the possibility of Viagara, et al. possibly affecting vision, it doesn’t seem worth it to take the chance. Sex vs. eyesight? I’ll choose eyesight for him….so why put myself through vaginal stretching that could take months, if ever it worked at all. I do advise women to just ‘blow off’ the word hysterectomy — it changes you life forever. Think about it. If it’s life threatening to keep your female parts, then let them go.

  9. May I refer readers to a new book by Jane Fonda called “Prime Time” which gives significant coverage to the topic of sexuality and ageing. Happy reading.

  10. Other things you need to consider: many older people are single and sex is not foremost on their minds, and b) many older people have conditions, and are on medications, that can severely reduce, or even completely destroy the sex drive or the ability to complete the act. However, a loving and physically affectionate relationship remain important as always.

  11. Our prioroties change as our bodies change. Sure, showering together is still fun–the hugging and touching and kissing all over often is all that’s needed for a very fulfilling experience. Then sharing breakfast or reading the paper together make for a perfectly rewarding day.

  12. I believe two main reasons sex was absent from most of the interviews has to do with a generational difference in how sex is viewed and discussed, and the higher number of older citizens involved in religion and religious influences.
    Many older citizens are shocked by the openness and prevalence of sex and the discussions surrounding it, that are expressed in our culture today. Our elders may feel it is not a topic that is appropriate to discuss in public or express outside of the marital bedroom. If interviewers don’t ask, then they certainly aren’t going to bring it up.
    The other influence on this issue is religion. Growing up with “Christian” influences, I learned early in my life that it was more respectable to pretend as if you were not a sexual being. While there is a public proclamation from most religion’s pulpits to accept healthy, monogamous sexuality, the realities are that you are seen as more of a righteous person, and held in higher esteem if you pretend you are without those sinful tendencies or “urges.” And since a higher percentage of our “sages” are church-going, and “God-fearing” people, again, they’re just not going to bring it up.

  13. If 1,000 people were interviewed, and sex didn’t come up at all, that doesn’t mean it’s absent from their lives. More likely, it means that it didn’t rank as high as the things that did come up. Unfettered by societal strictures., we feel much more free to talk about the “taboo” subjects than we did when we were younger.

  14. This is just a theory but I suspect the generation who wrote “Our Bodies, Ourselves” know their bodies very well and aren’t so different from from young women/men whose spouses are deployed for long periods of time. Throughout life,, sometimes people have partners and sometimes people don’t but human creativity and imagination is boundless.

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