Removing the stigma of senior sex

by Alicia Williams

Many consider sex to be one of life’s greatest pleasures. Yet the topic of sex among aging individuals is often considered taboo.

“People generally get pretty squeamish when they think about older folks having sex,” said Mimi Beattie, a geriatric nurse practitioner at the University of Utah. “But the reality is older folks have sex too.”

Shaun & Annette

Shaun Michel and his wife, Annette, spend time together in the backyard of their home in Sandy, Utah

Whenever Beattie hears someone say, “EEEUUUW. That’s gross,” she takes the opportunity to have a teaching moment. She said her middle-aged perspective of aging sexuality is different than younger people, because they haven’t gained the experiences needed to grasp the idea of a long lasting relationship.
So, Beattie asks them, “When would you like to stop having sex?”

Questioning stereotypes of aging and sexuality challenges our perspective, forcing us to conceptualize the absolute fact: We’re all going to be old one day. Suddenly, when we visualize ourselves as aged, the idea of being asexual, without sexual desire or sexually unattractive becomes completely illogical.

“You know what, as you get older, you don’t think older. I’m 56 and I still think I need to ask my mom for permission to buy things,” said Shaun Michel.

Shaun and his wife, Annette, 60, are uncommonly communicative about the intimate aspect of their 36-year marriage. Shaun said intimacy in a relationship is romance. It doesn’t matter how old you are, if your relationship stinks outside of the bedroom, it won’t be any better in the bedroom.

“You can’t go to the stove of life and say, ‘Give me some heat, and then I will put some wood in.’ You’ve got to put the wood in first, and then you’ll get heat,” Shaun said.

Society’s identification with the aging body as ugly, wrinkled, gross and definitely not sexy further perpetuates the stifling stigma encompassing the topic of aging sexuality. The taboo subject has healthcare professionals, even gerontologists, strategically steering clear of sexual discussions with their elderly patients.

Amanda Smith Barusch, a professor and associate dean of research in the College of Social Work at the University of Utah, wrote an article for “Social Work Today” titled, “Love and Ageism – A Social Work Perspective.” She recalls participating in a conference, about four years ago, and posing a question to an audience of 200 medical professionals.

“How many of you ask your clients about romantic love as part of your assessment?” Astonishingly, she said only two hands rose, and one of them was her assistant’s.

Several factors propel the ageism permeating society’s personal and cultural expectations, Barusch said. She defines the term ageism as a negative attitude towards older people and the process of aging. She finds it’s most often used while considering people of a certain age to be “too old” to accomplish something.

“I think mature sexuality challenges our stereotypes about age, and about sex. The notion that a lovely grandmother can enjoy intense passion goes against ageist notions of what old age is supposed to be like,” Barusch said.

A growing interest in romantic issues among older adults led Barusch to conduct a five-year qualitative research project and ultimately inspired her to publish a book in 2008, “Love Stories of Later Life.” She invites her readers to explore late-life romantic possibilities. And she believes romantic love, given its depth, pervasiveness and power, deserves to be targeted by medical professionals treating older adults.

“Professionals need to get past their own stereotypes and embarrassment, and talk seriously with older adults about their romantic experiences,” Barusch said. “This will help reassure them that they aren’t weird, and give them someone to talk to about the complications of late-life love.”

The Michels’ ability to easily converse about taboo subjects represents a sliver of light breaking through the dark wall of secrecy. Annette said even though the world worships youth, everyone has to eventually face the reality of their body changing as they age. For her, great physical experiences start with romance.

“It’s really important that your spouse lets you feel like you are a sexual being, and that you’re still wanted and desirable to that person,” Annette said.

Shaun said, “As we mature and our testosterone levels decrease, for a man, our vision improves on the things that are most important. She probably doesn’t feel as beautiful about herself as I feel about her. But it’s the whole package I love.”

“Yes,” Annette said, “and then you look at all these people that are known for their beauty and their youth. You know what? They’re gonna get old too. You don’t stay like that for very long.”

“And they aren’t necessarily happy,” Shaun said.

“Well,” Annette said, “if you judge your worth by the way that you look physically, you’re going to be really unhappy once you get older.”