Sex in the 60s
We may live in a society that doesn’t value ageing, but older people are increasingly asserting their right to be sexual and that needs to be celebrated. That’s the word from a leading researcher into sexual health and ageing.
“They’re accessing Viagra, accessing online dating, accessing sex toys and accessing information – and they want more information,” says Dr Catherine Barrett, director of celebrateageing.com and the former chief investigator and co-ordinator of the sexual health and ageing program at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University.
“There’s a lot to be celebrated about older people’s sexuality.”
Among things to celebrate are human connection, passion, joy, intimacy, touch and love, not to mention pleasure.”
Dr Barrett says there can be a number of losses when we age – independence, autonomy, physical function – so to have something that brings pleasure is an extraordinarily beautiful thing.
“Margaret” last year turned 60 – or “sexty”, as she calls it.
She says sexuality can be ageless, “depending on whose head you’re in”.
“I know people my age who wouldn’t even think about it, who are over it, but I also know others who find it’s part of their lives, regularly, and that’s what it should be. Sexuality is to the individual.”
Margaret says aspects of her sex life have changed because of the health of her husband, who has a lung condition.
“But that doesn’t stop us. Hello! Of course, timing is maybe not as frequent, shall we say, and there is external assistance available – a bloody good vibrator, you know what I’m saying – and that works for both of us,” she says.
Margaret says her desire has mellowed over the years. It took a dip in the early days of menopause but returned, helped by coming out of a long-term relationship and starting a new one with a man who adored her and
who is now her husband.
“With age on my side, my motto was ‘no time for bulls--t, get straight down to it’,” she said. “I was much more open to the opportunity and had much more frankness about it.”
And the best part about sex in her 60s? “The fact that I still enjoy it, love. It’s not a chore.”
Her advice to other 60-year-olds is: “It’s good for your health. Full stop. Don’t give it up.”
Dr Barrett says wellbeing is about being in the best possible state of health, and that includes sexuality.
“So for an older person, that might be feeling really confident about their body, knowing their body, understanding the changes that are happening with their body over time, and with disease, finding ways of living with that so that they can still enjoy their lives,” she says.
“It might be access to information about internet dating and safety, information about STIs, information on how to adjust to sexual changes if they have, say, diabetes.”
US author and advocate for ageless sexuality Joan Price who spoke at last year’s Let’s Talk About Sex conference on relationships and intimacy as we age, says nearly every life event that occurs brings some sexual challenge, from medical conditions, to losing the spice in long-term relationships, or being single.
“Men are most bothered by erectile problems; women seem to be most bothered by not feeling desire the way they used to,” says Price, commenting on her book The Ultimate Guide To Sex After Fifty.
“Everyone is affected by medical conditions, slower arousal, and often more difficulty reaching orgasm.”
But, she says, “We don’t have to give up the joys of sexual arousal, orgasm, and intimacy just because we’re wearing wrinkles and have some health problems”.
Brisbane-based Dr Michael Gillman, whose practice focuses on male sexual health, agrees.
“If you do have a sexual problem, there is good medical treatment available but you need to go in and get assessed as to what the problem is, exclude anything that could be a problem down the track, and get treated,” Dr Gillman says.
“As we get older, 60 per cent of men will have some degree of difficulty getting an erection,” he says.
“There’s a variety of reasons why – just age, if they have diabetes or high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or if they’re overweight if they smoke – all these things can contribute to erection problems.
“In fact, if a person’s erections go off, it’s usually a sign there’s some problem with blood flow… It may be the first warning sign that this person is at risk of an early heart attack or stroke.”
He says men should get yearly check-ups from the age of 40.
“The analogy that we’ll often use is these very same men will take their car in for a service every 10,000 kilometres (but not themselves), which is stupid but that’s what happens.”
Still, he says, there has been an improvement from about five or 10 years ago when less than 10 per cent of men who had erection problems would see a doctor.
“Now, my gut feeling would be well over 25 per cent so it’s a good improvement,” he says.
Other issues can contribute to sexual problems among men – including lowered libido, which might be caused by a reduction in testosterone, sleep apnoea, underactive thyroid or depression, Dr Gillman says.
“From a psychological point of view, it can cause a decrease in libido because the thing’s not working; then men who retire and trying to adjust to the retirement life and being at home, causing stress and anxiety, can in turn contribute to low sex drive.”
He says doctors can refer people to psychologists or specialists if necessary.
“We also then have people who are sexual therapists, and the doctor can actually refer people to them under a health care plan so it can be funded by Medicare, which a lot of people are not aware of…but it has to go through your normal general practitioner.”
Dr Gillman says there’s no such thing as normal.
“Age should be no barrier for people to have sex. If they want to have sex into their 60s, 70s and 80s, and they’re otherwise fit and healthy, there’s no reason not to do so,” he says.
The not-for-profit organisation Jean Hailes for Women’s Health says about 60 per cent of women in Australia report one or more sexual problems, which can be caused by age, menopause, medical conditions and medications, depression, anxiety, previous sexual abuse, a decrease in the quality of relationships, and lifestyle.
Treatment and management means first acknowledging the problem, finding a qualified health care professional and discussing a plan of action, such as hormone replacement therapy, changing medications with fewer side-effects on sexual function; treatment of symptoms; and counselling.
The organisation says social factors, such as what is considered appropriate at certain ages, can also affect a woman’s experience of sexuality and sex over her lifespan.
Dr Barrett says a lot of problems arise from society not recognising older people’s sexuality.
“We don’t value our own ageing, we don’t value older people as a society,” she says. “We don’t value ageing bodies and I think all of that contributes to a sort of general perception out there that older people aren’t sexual.”
She says while older people feel their sexuality is legitimate, living in a world that doesn’t, can mean families “veto new relationships or anything that’s considered to be too racy”.
The ageist perception that older people are not sexual also means they have experienced something of an information gap, which may or may not have been helped by their upbringing.
As Margaret says: “I come from a background of very little education on that level. My mother gave me a book about how frogs multiply when I got my period – I’m not joking. And, of course, there was never any discussion in my family about what sex is, let alone does it happen.”
Dr Barrett says researchers are conducting a survey to investigate a 58 per cent increase in sexually transmitted infections among older people.
“One of the reasons is this myth that older people are asexual, so they’ve never really been targeted with information.”
This lack of information leads to misperceptions that can affect their wellbeing and safety, for example, that condoms are only about reproduction and not STIs, or that age is a protective factor against sexual assault.
“There are fairly extraordinary myths about sexuality that create issues for older people,” Dr Barrett says.
Sexuality education for older people is incredibly important. We heard of older women who were in situations where their male partners weren’t always getting consent but there had always been that dynamic.”
Sexuality in residential aged care can bring greater complexity, Dr Barrett says, ranging from sex workers to new relationships.
“We’ve had conversations about people going into residential aged care and finding new relationships and sometimes those relationships are not heterosexual relationships.”
But ultimately it’s a sexual rights and human rights issue, Dr Barrett says. “I think the real question to ask people is: At what age would you give away your sexuality? And the answer would be: I would not, that’s my right – whether I want to assert my sexuality or express it, that’s up to me.”
“I come from a background of very little education on that level. My mother gave me a book about how frogs multiply … there was never any discussion about what sex is, let alone does it happen”
For more, see the national study of sex and relationships among Australians aged 60+ at sexagemesurvey.org.au