A few years ago a report by the UK-based Sheffield Institute for Studies on Ageing revealed that people over 50 who have regular sex are in better physical and mental shape than their less sexually active counterparts. People obviously don’t stop wanting to have sex when they start drawing a pension but in UK nursing homes, 17 per cent of people over the age of 85 report sexual interest, but no activity, because of insufficient privacy, lack of a partner, illness, the attitude of staff and feelings of unattractiveness. In fact, a few years ago a UK care-home worker revealed in a newspaper interview that residents being found entwined was not uncommon, and that four elderly people had been asked to move out of the home after being caught in ‘a midnight orgy’ in the day-room. Good for them. Who wouldn’t use physical contact, closeness, intimacy and sex to relieve the monotony of increasing immobility and daytime TV?
In 2001, the Pennel Institute published a study of existing research into sex in later life in the UK. Predictably, it found that most surveys focused on penetrative sex and managed to ignore the fact that divorce and bereavement have lead to a huge increase in the number of older people living alone. There were no questions about masturbatory habits, so the fact that many single men and women are still sexually active didn’t figure. In my own survey, only 8.9% of my dataset were over the age of 66. Since 17% of the population were aged over 65 in 2010, I know my dataset doesn’t adequately reflect the population so I am trying to find ways of expanding this sample. The fact that older people don’t necessarily have access to the internet complicates the process but I know from the many people who have responded that in later life that intimacy, in whatever capacity, is every bit as important as it was in middle age.
Because men tend to die younger, the male to female ratio decreases dramatically in later life. Thirty-five per cent of 65-year-old women live alone, and the older a woman becomes, the less likely she is to find a partner. And it’s not for lack of trying. In old people’s bridge clubs worldwide, four women are buzzing around every man – and it’s not his hand that they want to see. The Internet has provided older singles with new opportunities to make friends, though apparently even Internet daters pretend to be younger than they are. For a fee, some dating sites offer to doctor your photo to make you look younger, and the standard age for an online ‘older woman’ is 47; for an online ‘older man’ it’s 49. No zimmer frames, no cocoa.
Though there are thousands of senior singles who would gladly swap places with those lucky enough to have a partner, couples who have been together for a long time often find that sexual difficulties, inhibition and plain old boredom can kill any interest they ever had in sex. Physical deterioration (which starts at 30, let’s face it) can make people feel less confident about themselves and their bodies. Gay men may feel the loss of their looks and their physique more acutely. Decreasing testosterone, oestrogen and libido, wobbly erections, vaginal dryness, diabetes, surgery and mastectomy can be psychologically, as well as physically, debilitating. Stroke victims may be worried about exerting themselves during sexual activity, though guidelines suggest that if you can climb a flight of stairs without getting out of breath, you are fit to have sex with your regular sexual partner.
In later life there may be less emphasis on penetrative sex, but maintaining intimacy is fundamental to well-being. Older people often have established likes and dislikes, but with a different attitude, or a different partner, you may find that broadening your horizons makes for a whole new interest in sex. Vibrators supply sustained stimulation to the clitoris and vagina, and can also be used to relax and stimulate other areas of the body. Women over 40 need more powerful vibrators, according to the psychotherapist Julia Cole, who designed the Emotional Bliss (www.emotionalbliss.co.uk) range. With 6,000 vibrations a minute, the Hitachi Magic Wand (www.loveshackuk.com, £44.95) won’t disappoint. Check the intensity of the leading brand vibrators at www.mybodyvibes.com/ guidance/vibrator_intensity.html.
Most older women will require plenty of clitoral stimulation and extra lubrication before penetration. There are all sorts of wonderful lubes on the market and vaginal rings with bio identical hormones are remarkably effective. With age, declining testosterone makes erections less reliable. Fortunately, Viagra, Cialis and Levitra are now widely available on prescription and men who suffer from heart conditions can investigate pumps, pellets, injections and rings. Engaging in oral sex or mutual masturbation can take the pressure off a man to perform, and using dildos or vibrators with a good water-based lubricant will provide more than adequate penetration.
Some penetrative sex positions are better than others because they put less pressure on joints and muscles. Trial and error is the only way to find out what is comfortable, bearing in mind that more elaborate arrangements may not be sustainable for long. Liberator (https://www.theliberator.co.uk/) produce a range of sex furniture shapes that are designed specifically to act as supports during sex but you can make most sex can be made more comfortable with pillows or supports.
Below are some short case studies from older people who participated in my sex survey. Because I am keen to expand the number of people over 65 taking part I have set up a survey specifically aimed at this age group (Sex Survey for over sixty fives). I am also keen to hear from women in the (86-95) age bracket. (Case Studies)
Female (66-75) cohabiting 11-15 years. “We have sex weekly and are very satisfied. We have dealt with a lot of issues over the years. Arthritis, vaginal pain, piles, diverticulitis and knee replacements have all tried to dampen our enthusiasm but holidays, weight loss, and general appreciation tend to get us back on track. The only issue we have to deal with on an on-going basis is tiredness and with the challenges of age, full penetration is a lot more difficult. We have found other ways of getting satisfaction – though not through oral sex which sadly I am not very keen on. I think it is really important to understand, and accept and accommodate when possible or at least sometimes, what your partner can or cannot do, does or does not want to do.”
Male (76-85) married, 41-50 years. “I am somewhat satisfied with our levels of sexual frequency, and I suspect other couples of our age have sex less than we do. My wife has a few health issues. Although my wife is slim and very fit, she has diabetes which she says affects her somewhat. Five years ago she had a mastectomy which affects her self image however we worked to try and overcome this and to a certain extent I think we have – but it is always something of which she is aware. I suffer from erectile dysfunction but have no health problems. Still, I am 77 years old so…”
Female, (76-85) Catholic, married 41-50 years. “We have sex around once a month and I don’t feel it is particularly important. As Catholics we used the rhythm method of contraception but it was not effective. I had seven pregnancies and we had to resort to abstinence at regular interval because I was so worried about getting pregnant. Unemployment affected our circumstances and so we couldn’t afford to have any more children. Now, sex is a great comfort but my husband has health issues and this has lead to erectile dysfunction. I still find him as attractive as I ever did and we feel sadness that due to his health, we really cannot have a full sexual relationship now, however we still get great pleasure from our occasional forays.”
Male (86-95) , married, 41-50 years. “We have sex about twice a month, but it is now almost entirely manual. It is somewhat unsatisfactory, but I suffer from erectile dysfunction. We are both over eighty so I suppose it is the general effects of old age, and the next day after sex, we usually feel a bit sub-par. We have both had spells of mild depression but antidepressants have side effects. My impression is that we now both have longer more intense orgasms, possibly because of the care taken to ensure it happens.”