There are a lot of myths and stereotypes about sex in later life. Young people can find it impossible to imagine and highly unlikely; older people themselves can comment on being past it and complaints to health professionals about sexual difficulties can be dismissed as ‘normal’ and age related.
In the aged care industry, it has been only very recent, and by no means pervasive, for couples to enter residential care and be offered a couple room. This too is based on an assumption that physical closeness is to be dispensed with as we age.
Besides all of those biases and assumptions being ageist, they’re also predicated on people being in one long relationship, perhaps over 50 years. As over 40 per cent of people divorce from their first marriage, there are a lot of people who may be relatively early into new relationships in their 50s and 60s.
Sexual intimacy can play a different role in a couple’s life depending on the stage of the relationship, but also the role it has played throughout. For some couples, physical proximity and sexual expression is critical to their bond, it’s pivotal to how they love and feel loved, and can be key to repair when they fall out with each other.
It may be that for other couples, the sexual bond was never as strong, but physical closeness still has enormous significance. Some couples may have had limited physical connection and have been close through their common interests, emotional and intellectual engagement. Every couple is different, and indeed the individuals within that couple will experience differences in relation to sexual drive, sexual expression and sexual significance across the lifespan as well.
Sex and physical intimacy cannot be homogenised around life stages; it varies couple to couple, individual to individual. Yet, as a society we tend to do this, and come down on the side of it being closer to over in later years. In fact, couples who have enjoyed a good sex life can really struggle if the aging process or physical changes get in the way of their sexual expression. For some, who didn’t see it as pivotal, they can more comfortably move to keep close drawing on other relationship strengths.
Couples who are comfortable around their sexuality and are used to communicating well about it will also do better than couples who think that it should all happen naturally and there should be little discussion. If a couple doesn’t have language to discuss new possibilities, or feel embarrassed to move to new ways of connection, they might struggle more.
For example, if intercourse becomes difficult for a period, then being able to move to sensual massage or oral sex can feel like a worthy replacement. However, if these things embarrass you and have never been tried, there can be an impasse and a withdrawal from physical connection, rather than hanging in and exploring further.
Sex in later life is also affected by whether sex has been good enough over the years. In the early days, desire can be present without much work and that can be sustaining for quite a long time as you build a family together.
However, living together and managing family, domestics and work can be very unsexy, and couples have to contend with the impact on their energy for and creativity around sexual expression. Couples who have struggled to talk about it might have fallen into habits of how sex works for them that become fixed and less satisfactory over time.
Rather than renegotiate the boundaries and possibilities, they let it fall off the agenda out of embarrassment and hopelessness. Sometimes I ask people, “if you were to start having sex again, would you like to go back to the sex you were having, or something new?” The latter is often the case, but can be quite difficult to engineer with a known partner. Couples tell me they actually feel more embarrassed to reinvent themselves with their partner than with a new person, who has none of their history!
Gender can play a part too – at least in further stereotypes! Women are quite commonly said to lose desire over time more than men. In fact, there’s research that says that both can feel less satisfied with their sex life, but women might be more likely to retreat and men are more likely to want to keep going as something is better than nothing. How much better would it be for them to talk about what they’d both prefer?
Research also tells us that women can start out more conservative around sex, but over time become more permissive. Further, that people later in life can have better sex because all the self-consciousness of youth can be put to one side. You can no longer hide the aging process, so going with it can be physically liberating.
It can be assumed that by a certain age, you should accept being alone if you’re divorced or widowed and that your need for intimacy should be less of a driver. Yet we know that for women, older age is the time when a great deal of romance novels are consumed and the desire to connect, but perhaps in a more satisfying relationship than has been the case in the past, could be quite strong.
Romance and sex is in fact the same at any age. The anticipation, excitement, desire and craving for physical proximity is about relational stage not life stage. Certainly for some, especially if their prime relationships disappointed them, or indeed was so special, trying again could be unimportant. However, for those wanting to re-partner later in life, it’s a reminder that the life-force to love and be loved, desired and wanted, is fundamental to the human experience, not just the purview of the young.
If there are difficulties to overcome, with sexual expression or physical limitations, then pursue working around them. Don’t let your GP, nurse or health professional say you should be ‘past all that’. As with any other life stage, if it’s an impasse in your relationship and causing you concern, dismissing it won’t be a good idea.