Sex and Successful Aging in the Second Half of Life
Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center
October 2, 2006
“To the complaint that ‘aging deprives us of almost all physical pleasures,’ Cicero replies that such a loss is good riddance, because it allows the aged to concentrate on the promotion of reason and virtue…[he states]…’no more deadly curse…has been given by nature to man than carnal pleasure…I admit that old age, though it lacks immoderate banquets, may find delight in temperate repasts.’”
Fortunate modern humans learn that it is possible to enjoy both physical pleasures and find delight in temperate repasts.
Media is one window on our culture, and television has become a major source of propagating and conveying cultural ideas, values, achievements, and atrocities. TV Land, a television network which specializes in airing shows that were popular with child and teen baby boomers, has premiered a special about where boomers are now, and how they changed the world each decade since the 1950s, when the public first saw televised an idealized view of the perfect nuclear family living the American dream.
The children of the ‘50s lived in a comparatively prosperous time. They had parents who wanted much more for their children than they themselves had had in the years of the Great Depression flanked by two world wars. Capitalism supported the development of suburbs, leisure family time, and technology. Everyone knew what roles to play and the expected progression of accomplishments and tasks through life as one aged. Some of these ideals and morals remain fundaments of American life. Others have vastly changed. Almost all have been questioned and challenged.
As boomers grew up in the 1960s, social and political upheavals progressed through the decade and changed the world. Boomers born in the late ‘40s were now college students protesting the war in Vietnam, racism, repression of women, and the very capitalism that supported their comfortable childhoods and advanced educations. Boomers ignored or said “no” to many ideals and mores in the foundation of the American way of family and community life. Through music, media, dress, long hair, and social activism, they not only challenged the traditional but said, “Listen to ME!” Bumper stickers proclaimed “Question Authority” and “F#%# the Establishment!” and “Make love, not war!” Growing up at that time was about making your own rules, deciding for yourself, changing the assumptions about lifeways that had been directing American life for at least decades.
The 1970s and ‘80s developed cultural foundations of feminism, equal rights, the human potential movement, and the sexual revolution, including the first public recognition of gay rights. Boomers took over major industries including media, arts, communications, and technology, all of which changed the world yet again.
Famous boomers provide commentary on the TV Land television show. They have made statements such as, “We won’t be ‘over the hill’ – we’ll push the hill back!” and “We’ve changed the world every decade since we were born – now we’re going to change what it means to grow old – and stay young longer while we do it!” Current television commercials for a variety of products aim at the mid-life boomer by using musical jingles made from songs of the 1960s and ‘70s. No longer is it assumed that age 40 or 50 is “over the hill” or that being middle-aged or older is an automatic decline in vitality for living or purpose in life.
The “free love” generation catalyzed change about virtually every traditional assumption. They continue to do so through the public opinion influenced by the popular media.
Of course these dramatic changes are a focus of research. How is the experience of aging changing? Any discussion of adult development and aging includes defining what is thought of as successful aging, vs. just going downhill according to traditional stereotypical ideas.
In the learning guide and other readings for this course, many concepts and aspects of living are included in discussions of successful aging. Out of thousands of pages and hundreds of listed chapters, books, and journals, however, I estimate from the listings that fewer than one hundred pages discuss sexuality through the lifespan. Sexological research shows that sex is a core function with profound effects on a person’s life, far beyond being an activity necessary for procreation, yet in examining texts and journals about adult development and aging, sexuality is rarely the focus of discussion.
One comment made in the learning guide is that despite common misconceptions and fears about aging that many people have, a large number of older and elderly people live active lives which they describe as happy and useful. The question is, how do they do it? What are the physiological changes that affect humans as they age, including sexually, and how are these changes viewed and dealt with? What are societal deterrents or supports for active, happy, useful, and sexually active aging adults? Negative stereotypes and sex-negative information have long been supported by science, religion, and cultural mores, despite widespread challenge by liberal baby boomers. In recent decades, sexological, medical, and social science research have shown that the second half of life can be more fulfilling, sexually and otherwise, than the first half. Although slow to become publicly accepted knowledge, science and nature both uphold the free and natural attitudes about sex that were introduced in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Boomers are a media-driven generation and thus are media-targets. A recently aired television commercial for retirement insurance states that the upcoming generation of retirees won’t be spending their time playing shuffleboard and Bingo. They’ll be active into late years, inventing life all over again. This echoes what boomers themselves are saying and as such may be an effective approach to motivate them to buy retirement insurance; this also reflects what research shows may be a truth for people age 50 and up in the 21st century: Not only is the world socially and technologically different than in any previous era, but also the average life span for humans in developed countries is nearly twice what is was 100 years ago – and from what it has been throughout the history of human civilization. Legends and myths depict aged sages, such as Moses, Methuselah, Noah, and others who were purported to be hundreds of years old. Other than these men (who also supposedly lived exceptional lives), we don’t have models or cultural blueprints for living successfully – or even consensus for defining successful living – beyond age 50. But many people are working on this issue.
According to Robert Butler, M.D. (2002, p. 3), over 6000 Americans per day turn 60; by the year 2027, 20% of the population with be age 65 or older, a percentage historically unprecedented. Some people, throughout history, have lived even to age 80 and 90-plus. The average lifespan of 47, however, made the years of life beyond that a bonus: years that were viewed as full of wisdom or, conversely, as dried up and useless – two stereotypes that still hold some power. Now that living beyond age 50 is a norm for a majority, a new examination of aging and successful living is needed. Dr. Butler expresses this in his book, The New Love and Sex After 60: While the definition of old age is changing, views concerning sexuality in later life are not.
In The New Yorker magazine, a cartoon published in 2000 is captioned, “Good news, honey – 75 is the new 50!” (Butler, p. 3). Statistics show that disability rates have declined significantly since 1982, and heart disease and stroke, the two major causes of death among Americans, have been reduced 60% since 1950. People are feeling younger and staying healthier longer, facts to which society is adjusting positively and taking advantage of. Attitudes and general knowledge about sexuality as a lifespan activity are, however, not keeping up. (Where are those aging hippies?)
Researchers and gerontologists provide information that older people can enjoy sex, often until very late in life. Many sexual problems related to age, illness, or disability can be helped. Despite these facts, according to Dr. Butler (p. 3), “…not only the young and middle aged, but older people themselves are quite uniformly negative about the prospects of continued sexual interest and ability.” These attitudes reflect the age-old (no pun intended) ideas and mores embedded in our culture that sex is for the young, for procreation and, more recently in America, for the beautiful – a beauty with limited definition. Our language reflects this; we hear phrases such as “dirty old men,” “old fools,” “old goat,” and “old maid” or “old floozy.” Much “humor” includes making fun of old people who are still acting as if they can have sex, or want to, when “everyone knows” the old man is impotent, or the old woman is too “dried up” or ugly. Lust in a young man is considered lechery when he is old; a mid-life or older woman who still flirts and enjoys men is considered over-sexed, or “hanging on to her youth inappropriately”.
As a sexologist I know that there are people who, at any age, have less interest in sex than others, and there are those who, like Cicero, are glad to stop paying attention to it at all as soon as they can. There is no science which says people have to have sex; there is no “normal” amount of sex to have. Many people have a highly active sexual self, a condition which leads to its own difficulties when partners are if the opposite ilk, or unavailable. Being highly sexed at any age is, however, completely normal. For individuals who would just as soon never or rarely have sex, if not a result of trauma or addressable issues, this also is completely normal. Many middle-aged and older individuals are happy with life activities other than sexuality and are not concerned when sex is no longer a significant part of their lives. The rest of the population mid-life and up needs newly developing social support and correct information about the advantages and possibilities of sexual activity for as long as they live. For many older people, (as for some of all ages, especially women), sex is less about physical performance and more about connection, affection, continued closeness, and expressions of caring and passion.
Dr. Butler’s book is specifically for those who wish to know more. Filled with what should be relatively common knowledge about health, aging, and sexuality, he presents information about the physiological changes that effect sexuality as we age. Some of these are developmental changes such as menopause; others include events such as a heart attack, disabling conditions, and chronic illness. Most people who experience any of these consult a doctor about managing their health. In my profession I know several doctors who wish a sex counselor were on staff to educate nurses and patients on frequently asked questions about resuming, repairing, and improving sexual relations after hospitalization or diagnosis. According to what I have experienced and also heard from other health professionals, medical staff are often ill-equipped to answer patients’ concerns in this area, and even if they have the necessary knowledge, they don’t have enough time. Dr. Butler points out (p. 69) that “…physicians do not always advise their patients adequately on…sexual activity…”
Cultural concepts also breed misconceptions. It is commonly thought that menopause dampens or ends sexual desire in women. Research, however, shows that many women are more interested in sex after menopause: they have a freer life after children are grown; there is no risk of pregnancy; and experience brings a more mature outlook on life and relationships.
In my last paper for this class, an in-depth presentation of the developmental theory of selection, optimization, and compensation (SOC) was presented by review of an article by Paul B. Baltes, titled On the incomplete architecture of human ontogeny (1996). Baltes explains (p. 367) that one reason for the incompleteness of human ontogeny is the fact that biological and cultural architecture is relatively undeveloped for the second part of the life span; evolution has not had sufficient opportunity to evolve a full and optimizing “scaffolding [architecture]” for the later phases of life. Baltes and his colleagues argue further that because of this incomplete architecture, the allocation of functional resources is first and primarily directed toward growth in childhood, toward maintenance and recovery (resilience) in adulthood, and in old age, “more and more resources are allocated toward the regulation or management of loss” (p. 370). Focusing solely on “the regulation and management of loss” will not lead to understanding and facilitating vital and purposeful living.
George Vaillant, M.D., in his book Aging Well, discusses the definition of healthy aging (p. 186). In our experience it is inevitable that physical reserves diminish as time passes; however, variables exist in rate and type of decline and, perhaps most importantly, in outlook of the individual concerning personal well-being. Says Vaillant (p. 186), “Physical health also involves experiencing the biological ravages of aging without feeling ‘sick’.” According to his findings, psychosocial health is as important as biological health, and more difficult to measure. A person with many physical illnesses may experience life cheerfully, surrounded by friends, loved ones, and activities they manage to enjoy even with increasing limitations. Another may have the same or fewer ailments, but due to temperament and outlook as well as social context, may face every day feeling ill, old, or depressed. Vaillant continues, “Healthy aging then, is being both contented and vigorous as well as being not sad or sick or dead.” This echoes the determination of the founders of the World Health Organization when in 1948 they published the definition of health (p. 187) as “physical, mental, and social well-being, not just the absence of disease and infirmity.” My sex therapy professional brochure contains a similar statement which is supported by sexual scientists and organizations: “Sexual health is more than the absence of disease.”
Baltes’s theory of incomplete ontogeny has similarities with cultural attitudes about sexuality as people age. One is that people have sex because of being motivated by the drive to procreate. Sexological research in the western world has often served to uphold this partial truth. Common beliefs in many cultures are that as people get older, they lose interest in sex, they are no longer able to have sex, and even that it is inappropriate for older people to engage in or enjoy sex.
The two most commonly presented problems in the offices of sex therapists are those of “low desire” in males and females, and diminished or impaired physical sexual functioning in males. When these problems are seen in younger people, generally they are episodic or acute for a finite and resolvable reason. As people reach mid-life and beyond however, 50% of women and 25% of men report “low desire” as a chronic problem (2003, Weiner-Davis), and the most commonly presented problem for men is decreased ability for initial or sustained physical arousal (2003, Metz).
Erectile enhancement drugs join the practices of behavioral treatments to correct male physical dysfunction at any age. The “low desire” problem is more complex. One view of this is Master’s and Johnson’s human sexual response cycle as described in the 1960s. Conducting the first sexual research of its kind done with humans, they concluded that the experience of sex follows a certain progression of physiological events: one, desire; two, arousal; three, orgasm; and four, refraction, or rest and recovery. Desire is defined as the spontaneous cognitive-emotional drive to seek sex, and arousal refers to physical response, including genital, which leads to orgasm. Students of human sexuality are familiar with the illustrative diagram that accompanies this description of human sexual functioning.
In the complaint of “low desire,” what is – in this theory – not functioning, is the first event of spontaneous thoughts and sensations which drive a person to seek sexual stimulation and satisfaction. Some conclude that one reason for low desire is that with age, the drive and necessity for procreation wanes; no longer supported by evolutionary process, the related autonomic sexual desire diminishes or disappears. Since women’s bodies are more complex and hormonally designed for childbearing, it seems reasonable that overall, more of them are affected by loss of natural desire, especially after menopause when female sex hormone levels decrease.
Helen Fisher, Ph.D., an anthropologist, carried out brain research at Rutgers University in 2002 with 40 people who claimed to be “madly in love.” Half of them were requited, the other half rejected in this emotion. MRI scans revealed that photos of the beloved (but not of friends or acquaintances) created significant activity in the right ventral tegmental area, from which dopamine cells are projected into other parts of the brain. Dr. Fisher explained as one example, “kissing sprays dopamine all over the brain.” In scientific terms this means that dopamine is projected into the posterial dorsal caudate and its tail, both instrumental in the brain’s reward and motivation system. Dr. Fisher concludes from her studies that romantic love is part of the motivation and reward system of the brain.
In a lecture in San Francisco in 2004 (Open Heart, Open Mind Symposium, San Francisco), Dr. Fisher discussed the motivation and reward system of love in terms of evolution and survival. She developed a theory concerning this internal behavior. She considers it a three-step process – and asserts that there are three corresponding parts of love involving different brain systems, which she thinks developed to insure propagation of the species. First, humans scan the environment for suitable partners. Dr. Fisher calls this step lust, the craving for sexual satisfaction, which is driven by estrogen and androgens and motivates us to “get out there” and search for sex partners. This can be equated with the “desire” stage of Master’s and Johnson’s theory.
Dr. Fisher posits that in step two, we narrow the field when touching and kissing cause initial arousal and connection, which she calls attraction. It can be equated with the “arousal” stage of Master’s and Johnson’s theory. Dr. Fisher considers this second step a means to focus our attention on one person long enough for further attachment to take place. It’s when we carry the passionate behavior through to orgasm (the “orgasm” stage of the Master’s and Johnson theory) that resulting chemical reactions serve to bond the partners: They “fall in love” and are compelled to repeat the behavior in order to maintain their bond long enough for offspring to survive.
This attachment becomes the third phase. Attachment is characterized by a sense of calm, peace, and stability, a state which can be created by the chemical and hormonal influences of oxytocin and vasopressin, both results of orgasm, among other causes. This can be equated with the final stage of Master’s and Johnson’s theory.
Dr. Fisher presents the conclusion that this process, which she considers an evolutionary one, assures that the team of parents will stick together long enough to provide nurture and protection for offspring. Whether or not her conclusions are correct, her research shows that contrary to our fairy tale endings of happily ever after, the naturally induced attachment state often lasts only an average of two to three years.
This may explain the phenomenon that many people report of being “hot” in the beginning of the relationship, but anywhere from a few months to a few years later, “the honeymoon is over.” Dr Fisher noted that images of the brains of people who had been in love the longest were beginning to show signs of “the satiation response,” indicating that their drive for sexual, passionate satisfaction with that particular partner is waning. She noted, however, that attachment can remain or grow even when passionate love fades, because high levels of oxytocin and vasopressin present with attachment feelings remain even when other sexual processes and chemical catalysts are not involved. This may explain why many mid-life and older couples present with “low desire” even when they remain extremely companionate, loving, and committed to one another.
Dr. Fisher suggests (2004) that this three-step process could indicate that “millions of years ago” humans may have had multiple partners, which also assured the greater probability of the survival of a particular set of male genes.
Divorce statistics, among other data, show that not just “a million years ago,” but throughout history and currently, it is common for humans have multiple partners. Data from Dr. Fisher’s research (and statistics from several fields) can also be interpreted to support the idea that humans are not designed for lifelong and fundamentally monogamous relationships, and that we need to survive long term in groups rather than as isolated couples. So much for the ideal nuclear family of the 1950s.
So called “low desire” can be the result not only of aging but of natural changes in chemical responses present at any age, or a result of boredom, or of growing incompatibility with a partner over the long term. After all, “‘til death do us part” was a very different commitment in a world where age 47 was likely the oldest either partner would get; a world that was precarious medically; and a world where few women had much choice except marriage. The notion of the nuclear family is a recent western cultural phenomenon which can be viewed as a failed experiment. People rarely do well in isolation. Anthropology shows that families and groups in communities work together to survive daily life and the elements. Community support, family, and friend groups are imperative to the survival of all humans, including (if not especially) those in the second half of life.
In a workshop called “The second half of life” at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center (2006), survival of older and oldest persons was discussed. We do not have to hunt and gather for daily sustenance; it was related, however, that the estimated monetary need to survive in America as a retired person from age 65 to age 85 is 3 million dollars (2006, Achtenberg). Not one individual in the workshop had or knew of anyone who has 3 million dollars. This estimate was based on the costs of living independently at a particular level of quality. Demographics continue to indicate that more women than men will age as a single person. Authors of the text Adult Development and Aging, Schaie and Willis, state (p. 132) that being single is currently a lifestyle that any individual may experience off and on several times during adult life. U.S. Census records show that more people than ever before are currently living alone: 25.7% of the population. Sixty percent of women aged 75 to 84 are widowed, compared to 19 percent of men; 80 percent of women 85 and older are widowed compared to 39 percent of men. Also stated is that a review of several studies on widowhood in late life reveals that many older single women are quite resilient, partly because they are able to create new partnerships or networks; others need to help strengthening their social support.
As aptly put by Dr. Achtenberg in the workshop, to survive with creativity and generativity in the second half of life we need to find or create our “tribe”: “Tribes” can be created within households due to remarriage and blended families – now more the norm than the nuclear family, which is no longer typical: according to Schaie and Willis (2002, p. 132) nuclear families comprise only 24.5% of households. Some “tribes” consist of adopted or extended family members living with married and single younger parents. According to Schaie and Willis (p. 133), “…remarriage following the death of a spouse in old age is also becoming increasingly common, particularly for widowers.”
Clearly, humans are designed to survive long term in groups, not isolated by the problematic configuration of the nuclear family, and not designed for the limited sexuality imposed by a single lifelong partner. The Schaie and Willis chapter on family (pp. 166-174) seeks to dispel a number of common misconceptions, including that the model family is the nuclear husband, wife, and offspring stuff of those early TV sitcoms; another is that parents are distressed as the nest is emptied. Instead, many older adults start new careers, travel, develop new friend and love relationships, reconnect with the partner they already have, and enjoy many activities that were not possible when they were responsible for a family – including enjoying sex in the privacy of their now “empty nest”!
Contrary to Dr. Fisher’s conclusions, we know that sexual knowledge and practices of eastern and other world cultures, discoveries from feminist and humanistic practices, brain science, and social science research all show that sex is both a common activity beyond the drive for procreation and a viable lifespan activity. Some recent research was presented at a 2004 conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality by Joan Roughgarden, Ph.D., who discussed findings published in her recent book, Evolution’s Rainbow. Her social biological research identified sixty species (adding to thirty already documented) which display behaviors contrary to proscribed “moral” beliefs of various human societies. Included in the study were apes, our closest animal relatives, who engage on a regular basis in sex for pleasure, including alone and with same sex partners. A significant number of species contained a member who could be described as transgendered – with physical parts and roles in the community of both sexes. Contrary to human behavior in some cultures of treating such individuals as outcasts, the transgendered members of other species are valued because they serve vital purposes in the group as peacemakers, matchmakers, or problem solvers.
According to Rita Carter, author of the text Mapping the Mind, neurobiological science maps sex drive in humans as part of survival motivation based in the hypothalamus (as it is in many animals). Sexologists concur with Carter’s additional conclusions that human sex drive is not a simple brain process. Carter explains (p. 72) that while human sex drive centers on the hypothalamus, “…like other urges, it radiates out to encompass a wide range of other brain areas in both the limbic [system] and the cortex.”
Supporting this conclusion, as opposed to – or in addition to – the evolutionary based theory of sexuality, is the study of women and sex, (2006) The Heart and Soul of Sex, by Gina Ogden, Ph.D. Describing the results of brain scan studies (p. 124) she shows that there are twelve active areas of the brain during sexual activity and orgasm. One of these is the temporal lobe, which is important in hearing, and is also attributed to activity relating to spiritual experiences or religious ecstasy. Reports by women in Ogden’s study confirm that the kind of sexual experience which humans seek is much more than a genital one oriented toward making babies. Ogden states:
“[this study also showed] that women’s vaginal-cervical stimulation and orgasm activated multiple regions of the brain – and activated them simultaneously…these laboratory findings represent a major breakthrough in sex research. They provide the first truly objective data to support the idea that response to physical stimulation invokes much more than physical sensation – it may also invoke thoughts, fears, joy, surprise, memories, dreams, pain, pain relief, religious ecstasy, discernment, and anticipation of reward and punishment. Moreover, it shows that all of these occur whether or not we’re consciously aware that all of them are happening” [researcher’s italics]. Certainly few if any of these responses are required for sperm to meet egg.”
Ogden’s work shows why theories of decline and of resilience of sexuality are both true. The women in this study were a range of ages including mid-life and older, in a variety of professions and lifestyles, and the group of nearly 4000 participants included lesbian and transgendered women. The purpose of the study was to explore the connection between sexuality and spirituality. Previous sex research has focused on physiology and performance, which seem to decline with age; this focus does not assess what people want, nor how they experience sex as a whole person.
Women especially have been indoctrinated to feel “dysfunctional,” indeed have been clinically labeled so, if they do not display the ability to orgasm regularly with intercourse – regardless of the fact that female anatomy supports orgasm with intercourse in only 30% of women. The “dysfunctional” label also fails to account for quality of connection with, or skill level of, her partner. Nor does it give correct weight to the fact that religion, media, and science have, until the recent two or three decades, trumpeted or at least supported the message that not only are most women incapable of being truly sexual, but that sexual arousal in a woman is inappropriate unless she is a Fallen Woman.
In addition, the message is that as they age, women become less desirable and more sexually inadequate. I am reminded again of how ingrained these attitudes are by a biographical show about Marilyn Monroe that I recently saw. One of the most famous songs in film history is “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Promoting a view of women that they are more interested in material riches or immediate (and temporary) gratification than in spiritual or relational values, the song also emphasizes that only the young and beautiful are desirable: “…as a girl gets older, men grow colder…”
Dr. Ogden’s study has proved not only that older women and men are capable of powerful intimate connection with others, but that sex can be a life-changing, not just a physiological, experience. Respondents claimed that “whole-person” sex changed their minds and their belief systems by “transporting them to other levels of consciousness” (Ogden, p. 25). Numerous surveys came back with accompanying letters and margin notes describing deep sexual experiences with phrases such as “A higher place,” “Another plane of existence,” and “In the midst of orgasm…the presence of God.” A 51-year-old antique dealer describes how learning this deep kind of sex changed her life (p. 26):
This was not growth, this was transformation. I began to learn about and practice unconditional love, and it was magic. My spirituality exploded and enveloped everything. All aspects of my life became a seamless whole, so that there was not separation between spirituality and love, between spirituality and sex, between spirituality and relationship, between spirituality and everyday life. I have begun to see everything with new eyes, nothing is the same. I am like a baby, fresh and new, knowing nothing and having to start all over again. It is difficult to find words to explain this experience, and to fit it into a questionnaire is utterly impossible.”
With more support for the media-promoted proclamation that upcoming retirees will not be playing Bingo, Rick Moody, author of the popular text Aging: Concepts and Controversies, is quoted in the learning guide for this course (p. 10). He writes about the attitudes of aging baby boomers who, he claims, are convinced that “this time it will be different,” that they will revolutionize what old age is all about. Although it is becoming public knowledge that baby boomers themselves plan to do just that, Moody claims he is skeptical about this. Other researchers and writers he discusses are sanguine, and new evidence continues to appear in support of the baby boomers’ assurance.
Research for part one of this course dispels the myth that most older and oldest adults are wasting away alone and unwell, lacking meaningful purpose – a belief attached to historic life expectancy and experiences. Demographics show that two-thirds of the old and oldest are leading interesting, active lives and therefore also serve as models for change as individuals approach the second half of life. The 4000 respondents in Dr. Ogden’s research on sexuality and spirituality contribute to this revised orientation through recognizing sexuality as a whole-life experience.
The text Handbook of the Psychology of Aging discusses which health behaviors benefit the elderly (p. 189). Claiming that the only consistently “proven” benefits come from diet and exercise, the authors ignore the plethora of studies demonstrating that sexual activity has health benefits ranging from pain relief to cancer prevention to chemical support for positive mental health. Sexuality and physical health are obviously interrelated and affect one another. One part of the “treatment” for what is termed low desire is to reconnect with the body, with vitality, and to develop or relate to a positive body image. For some people, exercising helps them do this assignment, because when exercising they feel stronger and more attractive, as well as rejuvenated. Poor health and low strength can get in the way of confidence, of feeling sexual, and of the ability to carry out sexual activities. Having sex can increase self-esteem and motivation to get or be well; sexual activity has healing benefits such as improved circulation, cardiovascular and muscle exercise, release of “feel good” chemicals and hormones, and immune system boosters. Rather than being a subject mostly ignored by medical and health professionals, based on research evidence, “Have as much sex as possible” ought to be a common prescription!
If only that were a prescription that pharmacies could fill! A major obstacle to continued sexual activity as people age is lack of partners, especially for heterosexual women. As Dr. Butler says in his book on sex for people over 60, men will have to learn to keep themselves in better health and live longer (p. 29). Lack of partnership is not limited to heterosexual women, however, but is a problem experienced by many, as this man interviewed by Dr. Butler relates (p. 59):
“I have been ‘on the shelf’ as they say, for the past four years – no more sex, just thinking about it, which is not sufficient. If I could find a lady friend who would accept a guy in a wheelchair, I might give it another try.”
In my profession I have sought information and resources on sexuality for persons with disabilities; I have found very little. It is a commonly held view that people who are disabled don’t want to or can’t have sex, and if they do or can, who would want to have sex with them? This attitude is another sad result of the generally sex-negative atmosphere and lagging sexual knowledge in our culture. Will the philosophy of “love the one you’re with” catch up with the advances in medicine and technology that are better at preserving life than being concerned with life quality?
According to research reported in Handbook of the Psychology of Aging (p. 193), attitudes and beliefs are more powerful in motivating people to follow certain practices and routines than are potential or proven benefits. For example, people may not exercise or eat well, yet millions of dollars are spent each year on supplements and alternative treatments, many of which have no proven efficacy rate. If being motivated to continue sexual activity in mid and late life is anything like being motivated to adopt healthy behaviors, then many people may not be having much sex as they age. On the other hand, if positive attitudes about sex are part of the baby boomers’ armamentarium, that may be significant in changing the overall meaning of aging.
As Schaie and Willis point out (p. 157), our culture has developed an image of grandparents as “benign, grey haired angels.” At this point, however, most people are grandparents in mid-life and are part of the changing paradigm of aging. Adults age 50 – 80 are living active lives, and more adults age 80 plus than in the past are functioning with purpose and energy. Single and widowed old and old-old women are managing to survive and possibly thrive; as of a U.S. Census in 1998, 30% of elderly age 65 and up are living alone. Of those, 57% are women and 28% are men (p. 167). This is an historic increase attributed to improved health and economic status. It may be even more important that the strong desire of this cohort group is to remain independent: “In many ways, the current generation of elderly women [mothers of the world-changing baby boomers – my note] are pacesetters. Single women appear to be creating social environments and lifestyles to compensate for the loss or absence of a spouse.”
Gay and lesbian partners need friends and family as much as anyone else. Often they have children from previous heterosexual relationships or through adoption, surrogacy, or insemination. While progress has been made since the 1970s in acceptance of and legal support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals and partnerships, this population still faces danger and discrimination regardless of age or race. Added to other risk factors of the aging in our culture, this makes LGBT aging and elders a very vulnerable group.
Young or old LGBT people lose friends and family members for being themselves; a 1999 Gallop pole revealed only 50% of the American public as accepting homosexual relationships, and only 38% as accepting the idea of legal marriage or other common and civil rights except for heterosexuals. Many elder people of what is still being called “alternative” sexual orientation have lived most of their lives without revealing their sexual identity, or in isolation or limited accepting groups of friends if they have lived openly. If they lose a lifelong gay or lesbian partner, they have no legal right to belongings, property, insurance benefits or other things taken for granted (and often fought over) by the families of heterosexual couples, regardless of how long the couple lived together or contributed to the acquisition of assets. If hospitalized, the homosexual partner has no rights to visit his or her loved one, nor to influence any decisions made about their health care or death. An elderly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individual is most likely to be left alone and without resources. Perhaps due to this unfriendly world, more LGBT people are forming long-term partnerships that are commitments recognized by like-minded friends and community groups, if not by churches or the law.
Schaie and Willis (p. 173) discuss recent studies that compare marital satisfaction and longevity of committed couples: married, heterosexual cohabiting, and male and female homosexual monogamous. The findings reveal all the relationships as experiencing a decrease in satisfaction after about 5 years. Further longevity is dependent upon maintaining satisfaction, which was measured for all groups by these qualities: intimacy; equality; constructive problem solving; autonomy; and barriers to leaving the relationship.
Feminist author and activist Joani Blank’s most recent book, Still Doing It, is a compilation of true sex and love stories of people age 50 into their 80’s. Several accounts are of widowed (or late life divorced) men or women who find and marry a love from earlier in life. They reunite with a high school sweetheart or other early life lover who they consider “the one that got away.” All the stories, whether or not of a remarriage, are of exciting sexual encounters, or of continued or renewed passion in ongoing relationships. Ms. Blank estimates from her research and work on this book, that such a sex life may be common for only about 25% of people over 60 or 70 (according to a quote from the back cover). She hopes her book will support the upcoming generation of age 60 plus individuals to increase this percentage.
Schaie and Willis relate the same message that the TV Land show on baby boomers is developing into popular opinion: It makes sense that aging boomers will change what aging means. In the 1960s and ‘70s, “…there were dramatic shifts in attitudes toward marriage and family; and in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, we saw new forms of the family and of family relationships that were manifestations of these shifts in attitudes” (p. 174). Inherent in this statement is that sexual attitudes and activities shared by the generation were revolutionized – a revolution resulting in medical advances in birth control and antibiotics, and by dramatically changed laws about homosexuality, divorce, and abortion.
Social changes brought about by this generation will be reflected in their older years by relaxed programs for family living, expanded range of choices in many life arenas, and a decrease in the need to conform to the traditional and rigid ideals of other times and peoples. An overall change has occurred emphasizing the needs and accomplishments of the individual and a redefinition of community. Technology has also increased the abilities of people to stay healthy, stay in touch, and be mobile; this technology was surely influenced by the different outlook of this group of adults as they progressed to and through careers.
All these changes and advancements do not alter underlying principles of human survival and living. Like many emergences in the 60s, the basic model of Maslow’s theory of self-actualization holds true; its applications are different. Survival of the individual still requires group or community – but that group may not be one’s family of origin or one’s church: People still need love and acceptance – with whom may now vary throughout life and has a bigger field of choice. People still seek self-actualization, as other fundamental needs are met – and those who are fortunate have more ways than ever, and more years of life, in which to do so.
Increased life span supported by advances in nutrition, medicine, socially supported health care, has coincided with the grown-up ideals of the social movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s that promote values of personal growth, individual achievement, religious freedom, and civil, women’s, and sexual rights. In terms of lifespan sexuality, why would traditional, long term, forced monogamous relationships remain the idealized norm? Boomers are bringing along the relationship styles that emerged during the sexual revolution. That they are only recently being researched does not mean they are recent. They are in fact confirmed as established and consistently growing: LGBT partnerships, multiple partnerships known as polyamory, open and committed long term marriages, swinging, and the most common among all groups, serial monogamy.
Despite the necessity for change and all the positives that can come of it, change can also cause upheaval, social confusion, and lack of resourcefulness needed to develop new answers. Change in approaches to relationships and sexuality as thriving lifespan components are no exception. The healthier, more diverse, and longer-lived aging baby boomer has the fundamental experience and ability to take loss of and changing partnerships in stride, to complete the architecture of late life ontogeny. Those who pioneered positive change need to be supported proactively by educators, researchers, and therapists. What boomers bring to human development needs to be acknowledged, appreciated, and further studied in order to widen the values they have clarified and highlighted as their generational gift to those older and younger who can benefit from them.
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