Sex, Love, & Intimacy: The Spice of Life

So, have I gotten your attention? I sure hope so, because I can think of no more important an activity to embrace in living a satisfying old age than nurturing your love life and your sexuality.

Here are the facts. It is important to know that:

  • Sexuality is normal and natural in old age.
  • As you age the amount of sexual activity generally decreases but the amount of sexual interest and ability remains fairly constant.
  • If your sexuality is constant throughout life, the biological changes associated with aging are less pronounced and sexuality is usually less affected.
  • Sexual health can be beneficial to overall health.
  • Sexual activity is possible and takes place through the seventies, the eighties, and beyond.
  • There is more to sexuality than just intercourse. There are many other forms of intimate expression that can enhance your experience with a partner including spending time together, holding hands, hugging, touching, kissing, masturbation, and oral sex.
  • The physical exertion associated with sex is roughly equivalent to walking up two flights of stairs. Sex for heart disease patients is rarely dangerous. However, it is recommended that you consult a physician concerning the risks associated with sex and disease.

Keep your sex life sexy! As we grow older it is important to maintain creativity and spontaneity in our sexual lives. You can do this in a number of ways including:

  • Playing Games: Consider games that you can play with your partner that are fun and flirty.
  • Exploring New Locations and Positions: Consider different locations you can use for sexual activity: the living room, bathroom, kitchen, a local hotel…consider all possibilities, even if they at first seem far-fetched and silly.
  • Talking About Your Fantasies: Consider talking to your partner about your fantasies and have your partner do the same thing. If doing it face-to-face is too difficult, you can always do it via e-mail, text messaging, or writing letters.
  • Creating Special Occasions: Make sure to have special nights and occasions that are just for the two of you. The idea of scheduling a “date night” with your spouse or partner creates excitement and anticipation.

Communication is everything. Communication is crucial to both creating and maintaining intimate relationships. And, it is not just what you say that influences your partner. Communication is not determined simply by words but also by the manner in which those words are transmitted (voice tone) and the body language that accompanies them. Your body language and the tone of your voice have been found to be responsible for shaping the majority of the meaning derived from communication. Only a small percentage of meaning is determined by the words themselves. So, what you say may be less important than how you say it. Intimate moments can be enhanced greatly by your facial expressions, body movements, clothing, gestures, and touch. The language of love is not only heard, it is seen and felt as well.

Beware of the media! The media can go to great lengths to persuade us that aged bodies are not sexually attractive. To some degree, their efforts have been successful. Americans spend billions each year on cosmetic products designed to erase the signs of age. But we need to remember that age will not be erased, and the pernicious effects of ageism unfortunately lead many to lose confidence in their physical attractiveness. Age does bring subtle changes in the sexual experience itself. Yes, your health can have an impact on your sex life and sexual performance. Chronic health conditions such as heart disease or arthritis can make sex and intimacy more challenging as can certain surgeries and medications, such as blood pressure drugs, antihistamines, antidepressants and acid-blocking drugs.

Don’t give up! It is quite possible to adapt to physical limitations. If you’re worried about having sex after a heart attack, talk with your doctor about your concerns. Chances are you will be told that the risk is minimal. If arthritis pain is a problem, it is recommended that you test out different sexual positions or try using heat to reduce joint pain before or after sexual activity. And, you may need to adjust your sexual routine to include more stimulation to become aroused. What is most important is that you stay positive and focus on ways that work for you and your partner to remain sexual and intimate. Actually, some of the physical changes in men’s and women’s bodies that are associated with aging can encourage a more intimate experience – those changes in our body’s physical response to arousal seem tailor-made for helping us appreciate the opportunity to not have to rush through foreplay and lovemaking.

Of course, there can be physical risks. Although pregnancy may not be as much of an issue, late-life sex is not risk-free. This is particularly true for those men and women who are finding new sex partners. You may not realize that 10 to 15% of new AIDS cases in the United States are reported in people 50 and over. And heterosexuals are not exempt from the AIDS epidemic. If you are having sex with new or multiple partners you need to protect yourself.

Don’t be afraid to talk to talk about your concerns. Health care professionals are not likely to raise the issue themselves or feel totally comfortable talking about matters of intimacy and sexuality with you. Even so, it is very important that you not be afraid to talk with your doctor if you are having a problem that is affecting your sex life. While doctors commonly suggest treatments for erectile dysfunction, they can also be helpful in identifying and correcting a drug interaction that is adversely affecting your sexual experience or suggest ways in which to reduce the negative impacts of chronic health conditions you are experiencing. Your doctor can also refer you to a therapist or counselor who has special training in helping with intimacy and sex issues of an emotional nature.

Intimacy can be transforming. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it beautifully in This Side of Paradise when he wrote: “They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.” The intimacy that accompanies a satisfying sex life contributes to our personal development no matter what our age. It can also be a vehicle for self-discovery. Intimate partners hold up a mirror that reveals who we are from new perspectives. In this process we notice hidden facets to our personalities and find new capacities. It opens us to powerful lessons and insights and we can, as a result, come to know ourselves better. This, in turn, enhances our ability to know others. Intimacy calls on us to develop new skills for communication and disclosure. These new skills can be used in other aspects of our life at the same time that it improves our effectiveness in other types of relationships. And remember, research on the emotional lives of older adults suggests that, like many complex abilities, the capacity for intimacy improves with age.

Dr. Len Kaye is the Director of the University of Maine Center on Aging and a professor at the University of Maine School of Social Work.