01 Oct How to Explore Your Sexuality As You Age!
Today is International Older Persons Day!
International Older Persons Day was passed by the United Nations in 1990 to raise awareness of issues that affect older people in society and to appreciate the contributions they have made to their communities.
But, who is an older person and how do you know?
Who is an Older Person?
It depends who you ask!
When we’re thinking about national policies, research, programs and services, and other benefits or entitlements, the government will define an older person chronologically as 65 years of age and older. On the other hand, if we consider recreational supports or when discounts might become available, we may consider an older person to be someone 50 years of age and older. Based off of appearance alone, we may try to categorize a person as either younger or older, but if we were to ask somebody if they feel they are an older person, they may or may not consider themselves to be.
This is because the process of aging is a subjective experience!
Don’t get me wrong, there are objective aspects to aging too… like the biological changes our bodies encounter with time. For instance, as we grow older our skin becomes more wrinkled and less elastic, while our hair thins and becomes grey. We experience losses in muscular strength, joint flexibility, as well as bone strength and mass, which could leave us feeling frail. Our cardiovascular system becomes less efficient and our lungs become less elastic, especially when we are exerting more energy. Our immune system’s ability to fight off illnesses declines with age, so we may become more susceptible to illnesses. There are changes to our kidneys, which could increase the length of time that a drug stays active in our bodies. We may also notice that our vision, hearing and cognition are affected, and that there is a decline in the hormones our bodies are producing. However, all of these changes to the body vary from person to person and are impacted by so many factors that we both can and cannot change, such as: genetics, sex, race and ethnicity, substance use (e.g., cigarette, alcohol, etc.), level of physical activity, nutrition, gender, medications and therapies, race or ethnicity, education, income, occupation, relationship status, and where you live.
With these changes to our bodies, the nature of our relationships and roles in our communities also change. So when we ask somebody if they are an older person, there is a lot to consider! They may need to think about their physical and mental health, their (dis)abilities, whether they are giving or receiving care supports, the number and quality of social connections they may have, their level of activity and engagement in their communities and perhaps whether they are following certain aging stereotypes or social scripts.
What are Aging Stereotypes?
Even though research has found that aging is a complex process that is distinct to the person and their circumstances, we continue to perpetuate misconceptions of aging which impact how we think about and interact with older persons.
Aging stereotypes are myths that often go unchallenged. These stereotypes may also include ideas around who is considered beautiful and sexy or how people should dress and behave once they reach a certain age. Sometimes they can be positive by viewing older persons as active, healthy and wise. But more often than not, they are negative and depict aging as undesirable because of illness, loneliness and a lack of capacity for decision-making.
Any stereotype, whether positive or negative, has the ability to reinforce ageism, that is, discrimination, oppression, and exclusion based on a person’s age. For instance, one study found that very active older adults wanted to stay physically and mentally active so that they could avoid becoming old (e.g., frail, dependent, diseased). To actively resist aging stereotypes may be empowering for these older adults, but it also perpetuates ageism and the fear of illness, rather than acceptance for a natural process. Similar experiences also come up when we think about an older person’s sexuality…
When older persons integrate aging stereotypes into their perceptions of self they may feel sexually invisible and could experience an altered sense of body image because of it. Feeling a lower sense of confidence and self-esteem, older persons may limit themselves from expressing their sexual needs and desires out of the fear of being judged.
When older persons reject aging stereotypes or aging sexual scripts they may reject bodies that are aging naturally and may place importance on medical interventions (e.g., Viagra). Physical limitations that impact sexual functioning could be seen as inevitable and fraught with frustrations, disappointments, distress, and other barriers when it comes to being able to have sex or to openly discuss their sexual health needs and desires. For these older persons, they may be focusing on trying to conform to a certain sexual standard, or trying to have “normal” sex, instead of exploring their true sexual abilities, pleasures and desires.
What is Sex?
Most of us were taught that “sex” had to include a penis being inserted into a vagina. But, your definition of sex can include whatever activities arouse you and bring you pleasure, whether you are having sex with partners or going solo. It should describe what you can do and want to do now – not what you wanted or used to do in the past. Take a moment to think about how you define “sex.” Consider these questions:
Does it include the kind of sex you’re having?
Does it include intimacy and connection?
Do you feel aroused or does it bring you pleasure?
Is it what you feel you are supposed to want?
Is it possible to have right now, given your circumstances?
Does it involve one partner or more partners?
Does it include solo acts (i.e., self-pleasure and masturbation)?
Recently, we have been having more conversations that normalize aging sexuality and there has been greater research to depict that older persons are sexually active well into later life! Even if older adults are having less sex, or experiencing sexual limitations and greater health concerns, it does not mean that they are having less quality or enjoyable sex. For instance, a Canadian study found that older persons have great sex regardless of ability, age, or illness when they move away from “normal” sex and adapt their sexual activities to meet their needs and abilities. Some ways older persons have done this is by:
Being present in the moment;
Creating a connection and being intimate with their partners;
Being open in their communication;
Remaining authentic about their desires and needs;
Being receptive to new ideas and taking safe sexual risks;
Exploring all of the ways of being sexually expressive and;
Being transcendent and letting go of goal oriented sex.
By letting go of aging stereotypes and goal oriented sex, or sex which focuses on achieving orgasms, older persons are able to achieve great sex that goes beyond functionality, medical interventions, physical limitations and penetration.
What are 10 Ways to Compensate for the Changes that Come with Aging?
- Accept Change: If you enjoyed sex when you were younger, there is no reason why you can’t continue to as you age (unless, of course, you don’t want to !). The only thing is that you may need to let go of some of your past sexual expectations, so that you may embrace and explore your new sexuality. Do your best to accept the changes you are experiencing and remember that aging is a natural process.
- Track Your Responses: Track what time of day you feel aroused or responsive, especially if you are taking medications or have any medical conditions as these tend to affect our arousal and response drive at different times of the day. When you feel it, go with it! If you can’t act on it right away, try scheduling partnered or solo sex accordingly.
- Schedule Your Sex: If you struggle with getting aroused or reaching an orgasm, it will help to start scheduling weekly partnered or solo sex. The more you practice the easier it will be for your blood to flow the next time. Scheduling sex isn’t spontaneous, but it will help with building anticipation…
- Talk About Sex: You may not have been brought up to talk about sex, but it’s the only way you will get what you want. Your sexual needs and desires change over time, so be sure to communicate them to your partners. Remember while you are discussing your desires to use “I” statements and to explain what you mean, avoid blaming or judging yourself or your partners, talk about it while you aren’t having sex, be curious and ask your partner what they would like, make a plan to incorporate your desires and check in with each other regularly. Being playful, using humour and gentle teasing can really lighten the mood!
- Find New Positions and Toys: If you are experiencing physical limitations consider which positions, toys or other technologies may more easily or better support you during partnered or solo sex. For instance, is there a cushion that you could prop under yourself to help with weight distribution (e.g., the Liberator), is there a toy that you could use hands free or with limited hand movements (e.g., the Satisfier, the DiGit, the Wand, the Perfect Stroke, the Fleshlight with suction cup, etc.)?
- Exercise 30 Minutes Before Sex: Increase your blood flow to speed up arousal, function, and pleasure. You only need to raise your heart rate enough so that you breathing quickens, but you can still talk. Try dancing, walking, or any other activity that will get your blood moving!
- Avoid Eating Before Sex: When our digestive systems are in full swing it slows down our blood flow, which keeps it from reaching our genitals as quickly. So whether you’re having partnered or solo sex, try to plan your meals afterward.
- Focus on Intimacy and Touch: Sometimes we may not actually be looking for sex, instead it could be intimacy and to be touched, held, looked at, admired, smiled at, to laugh, or to feel a loved, a connection, or safe and secure.
- Take your Time: Spend more time on pleasure and intimacy. Draw out foreplay so that it is a before and after sex experience! Find ways to relax and be comfortable with partners or on your own.
- Use Lube: With age, our skin thins and hormone production declines. This means our bodies are producing less natural lubricants and that our skin is more susceptible to tearing . To avoid this, try using a personal lubricant! There are many types of personal lubricants (i.e., water, silicone, oils, hybrids, flavours, etc.). Click here for a guide that will help you choose one that is right for you.
Remember to also keep the lines of communication open with your doctor! There are normal changes related to aging and these could be creating limitations to sexual functioning… but there are changes that may not be! For instance, diabetes and cardiovascular issues affect blood flow and could be limiting arousal and response. Although some older persons may experience greater excitement and sexual desire after menopause, others may have vaginal pain or itching and burning around their vulva. These cases should be explored further with your doctor, or a specialist like a urologist, gynaecologist, pelvic floor physiotherapist, and/or a certified sex therapist. When having sex, there’s also a higher chance of transmitting sexual infections, no matter your age. There are many different types and sizes of condoms that you can be using whether you’re having penetrative or oral sex with long-term, new, or casual partners, or even while sharing toys. Check-in with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns and request more information, as well as regular STI screenings.
Now… Go celebrate International Older Person’s Day by having sex!
Where Can I Learn More About Older Persons’ Sexuality?
How do older people discuss their own sexuality? A systematic review of qualitative research studies (Gewirtz-Meydan et al., 2018)
McMaster: Optimal Aging Portal
Naked at our Age: Talking out Loud About Senior Sex (Joan Price, 2011)
Senior Planet: A Senior’s Guide to Lubrication
Sex After Grief: Navigating your Sexuality after Losing your Beloved (Joan Price, 2019)
Sexual Health and Aging: Keep the Passion Alive (Mayo Clinic, 2017)
Sexuality in later life (National Institute on Aging, 2017)
Stereotypes of Aging: Their Effects on the Health of Older Adults (Rylee Dionigi, 2015)
The Components of Optimal Sexuality: A Portrait of “Great Sex” (Peggy Kleinplatz et al., 2009)
The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50 (Joan Price, 2014)
Written by: Jess Boulé, Pronouns: they, them, theirs / she, her, hers
Jess is our office strategist at Bliss Counselling. Jess is a Master’s graduate from the University of Guelph. During their degree, they focused on aging and end-of-life, communication, human sexuality, LGBTQI2S+ health, inclusive practice and policies, knowledge mobilization strategies, research methods, and program evaluation.