Geriatric Sex *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Many readers wonder what their sex lives might be like when they are older — in their 50s, 60s or 70s. What if you were to live to be over 80 years of age? What can you expect your sex life to be like then?

In ten different retirement communities, a questionnaire was administered to 100 men and 102 women, whose ages ranged from 80-102 years with a mean of 86.1 years. Beside being elderly, all of the subjects were white, upper-middle class and healthy. Although we do not know how race or socioeconomic status effects their behavior, bad health at any age restricts activities — including sexual ones.

These elderly subjects were still sexually active. Most of the men (88%) and women (71%) still fantasized or daydreamed about intimate activities with the other sex. The most common activity for both sexes was touching and caressing without sexual intercourse (82% of the men and 64% of the women), followed by masturbation (72% and 40%, respectively) and sexual intercourse (63% and 30%, respectively). (The few other studies of sexual activity done in the United States that included people over 80 show similar frequencies.)

Although 25% of the women and 53% of the men had regular sex partners, only 14% of the women and 29% of the men were married. Over three-fourths of the men with partners indicated they were happy with their partners as lovers and friends, while only about two-thirds of the partnered women indicated this.

Although the sex differences in activities might have been due to the reluctance of women to report their sexual activities, this does not seem to be the case. Both women and men seem to have omitted answering questions rather than lying.

Sex differences in sexual activities can be partially explained by the lack of a partner. In the United States as a whole, the sex ratio for those over 80 is 2.5 women for each man. In these retirement communities, the ratio was even higher — 6 women to each man.

However, another factor (not mentioned in the study) may be gender roles in sexual interaction. Especially when these people were growing up, only men were supposed to initiate sexual activities, and women — at least "good" women — were not supposed to be interested in sex. For those women who still follow these restrictive gender roles, they are less likely to engage in sexual activities and are less likely to enjoy them when they do occur.

No gender differences were found in past enjoyment of sexual activities with a partner. However, in the present, there are large differences, with women showing a much greater decrease in enjoyment. Over three-quarters of the men said they currently enjoyed sexual intercourse, but less than half of the women said so. Viewing sexual intercourse as being "only for procreation" might reduce both the frequency and enjoyment of this activity. However, men and women who thought sex was important in their past were more likely to be the ones who still enjoyed the various sexual activities with a partner.

Those who engaged in extramarital sex when younger were more likely to be currently sexually active. (However, this does not mean that having an affair will insure an active sex life in old age.) This finding is probably related to honesty and lack of guilt over sexuality. Those willing to admit having affairs are more likely to reveal that they are now enjoying sexual activities. Another possibility is that those — whose sexual motivation was high enough in youth to engage in affairs — are more likely to remain sexually active when they are older.

For those who continue masturbation and sexual intercourse into their 80s, the frequency does not change significantly. However, the most frequent activity after the age of 80 —touching and caressing — was performed and enjoyed more by men. Even so, this activity shows a significant decrease from their 80s to 90s.

Compared with another study done in 1972, there seems to be a small but steady drop in the number of men having intercourse. Also during these years, more men feel no interest in sex or see sex as having no importance in their lives. However — even in their 90s — less than 30% of men indicate that sex has no interest or is of no importance to them.

In contrast to men, women show a similar drop in sexual intercourse and sexual interest much earlier — in their 50s and early 60s. This seems to be related to menopause and the great decrease in hormone production that occurs during this period. The levels of sexual interest and activity do not seem to change much after that.

If you survive and are relatively healthy,
your attitudes toward sexuality
will determine your sexual activity in old age.

All in all, it seems as if your attitudes concerning sexuality will determine your sexual interest and activity even in old age. If you survive long enough — and are still generally healthy — you can still choose to have an active sex life. On the other hand — if you are among those who believe that sex is not important — that can be your choice too. Isn't it nice to know that we still can have a choice?

* Adapted from Judy Bretschneider and Norma McCoy's article, "Sexual Interest and Behavior in Healthy 80- to 102-Year-Olds," Our Sexuality Update, Benjamin/Cummings Publishing, Spring 1989, pages 5-6.

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