40 Sexuality in Older Adulthood

According to Kane (2008), older men and women are often viewed as genderless and asexual.  As part of this age stereotype, it is believed that most older people are nor sexually active. Due to conscious and/or unconscious negative stereotypes about age, older people who engage in sexual activity sometimes in fact are seen as offensive or as having done something wrong.  We internalize or apply these negative stereotypes to ourselves when we perceive ourselves tp be older adults. Possibly because of these stereotypes, older people have a more difficult time accepting their sexuality (Gosney, 2011).  Additionally, some older women indicate that they no longer worry about sexual concerns anymore once they are past the child bearing years.

In reality, many older couples find greater satisfaction in their sex life than they did when younger. They may have fewer distractions, more time and privacy, no worries about getting pregnant, and greater intimacy if they have a lifelong partner (NIA, 2013).  Results from the National Social Life Health, and Aging Project indicated that 72% of men and 45.5% of women aged 52 to 72 reported being sexually active (Karraker, DeLamater, & Schwarz, 2011). Additionally, the National Survey of Sexual Health data indicated that 20%-30% of individuals remain sexually active well into their 80s (Schick et al., 2010). However, there are issues that occur in older people that can adversely affect their enjoyment of healthy sexual relationships.

Causes of Sexual Problems

According to the National Institute on Aging (2013), chronic illnesses including arthritis (joint pain), diabetes (erectile dysfunction), heart disease (difficulty achieving orgasm for both sexes), stroke (paralysis), and dementia (inappropriate sexual behavior) can all adversely affect sexual functioning.  Note that many of these diseases can be prevented or modified through interventions such as exercise and a healthy diet and are not inevitably seen in all of us when we are older. Hormonal changes, physical disabilities, surgeries, and medicines can also affect our ability to participate in and enjoy sex when we are older, as well as we feel about sex as an older person. For example, a woman who is unhappy about her appearance as an older person may think her partner will no longer find her attractive. A focus on youthful physical beauty for women may get in the way of her enjoyment of sex. Likewise, most men have a problem with erectile dysfunction (ED) once in a while, and some may fear that ED will become a more common problem as they get older.  If there is a decline in sexual activity for a heterosexual couple, it is typically due to a decline in the male partner’s physical health (Erber & Szuchman, 2015).

Overall, the best way to experience a healthy sex life in later life is to keep sexually active throughout aduthood.  However, in current cohorts the lack of an available partner can affect heterosexual women’s participation in a sexual relationship.  Beginning at age 40 there are more women than men in the population, and the ratio becomes 2 to 1 at age 85 (Karraker et al., 2011).  Because older men tend to pair with younger women when they become widowed or divorced, this also decreases the pool of available men for older women (Erber & Szuchman, 2015). In fact, a change in marital status does not result in a decline in the sexual behavior of men aged 57 to 85 years-old, but it does result in a decline for similar aged women (Karraker et al., 2011). However, in the future changing customs and the shrinking gap in life expectancy between men and women could make it easier for widowed and divorced older women to continue their heterosexual relationships.


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