Aging and Sexuality
Redefining Satisfaction Through Sensual and Emotional Connections
by Kira Manser
Aging often brings strengths and benefits to an individual’s sexual life. For example, many speak about feeling more confident and free in their sexuality without the weight of expectations that often accompanies being young. Many participants share having a deeper and more meaningful intimacy with their partners that grows from a depth of experience and maturity.
However, many participants also talk about some real challenges and barriers to feeling fulfilled and satisfied in their sexual life. These include feeling lonely and isolated after losing a spouse or relationship later in life; having a hard time feeling sexy or interested in sex as their bodily function and form change with age; and having few realistic examples of older adults being sexual reflected in their lives. These challenges are common experiences that strongly impact older adults’ ability to have satisfying and healthy sexual lives.
One of the largest and most impactful physical needs that is often met through sexuality is called “skin hunger”. This is the need to be touched or in regular physical contact with others. This contact does not need to be sexual, but it is an essential part of holistic health.
This need often goes unmet by older single adults that are unable, or chose not, to find new sexual partners later in life. Without access to regular physical contact people report depression, cognitive decline and other serious health effects. One simple way to address this need in older single adults is to schedule regular opportunities for appropriate professional touch through massages, manicures or hair styling appointments. A pet can also meet this need, as does hugging or hand holding with friends or family members.
Our culture labels common bodily experiences as “sexual dysfunction”. In reality, every person’s sexual function varies over time. One of the main indicators of sexual satisfaction in older adults is their ability to be flexible and open minded in their definitions of what sexual functioning includes.
Our culture often very narrowly associates sexual functioning with erections, penetration, self-lubrication and orgasm. In reality every person will struggle with these standards if they live in their body long enough. Therefore, it is helpful to shift our definition of sexual functioning to focus more on a person’s ability to access whatever benefit from sex that they desire, for example, for pleasure, intimacy, connection, self-expression, stress relief, and/or adventure. People are more sexually healthy and happy if they are able to define successful sexual encounters on whether they are able to access these benefits, as opposed to comparing themselves to narrow physical standards of “sexual functioning”.
Lower satisfaction and happiness is reported when older adults define and understand intimacy as being tied to orgasm and penetrative sex. People that are able to reimagine and redefine what “good sex” looks like as they move through various stages of physiological abilities report much higher overall sexual health and happiness. A great example of this includes people that enjoy “outercourse”, a broad range of sexual activities that prioritize sensual and emotional connection beyond penetrative sex.
Sexual Enhancement Devices
Many people use sex toys, sexual aids or sexual enhancement devices as part of individual and partnered sex play. People enjoy using sexual aids because they can enhance pleasure and provide new sensations or renewed possibility to experience sensations. For more information on how to purchase and use a wide variety of sexual aids, please visit The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health’s website (thecsph.org) and search for Buying Guides.
Talking to Medical Providers
Many older adults report wanting to speak with their medical provider about sexuality, but aren’t sure how to start the conversation. Medical providers should be able to talk about sex drive, safer sex, sexual health, sexual satisfaction and pain during sex; however, many providers wait for their patients to bring up these issues.
Before a doctor’s visit, write down any sexuality concerns and use the list as a reference at your appointment or hand it to your doctor. They may not be able to address everything themselves, but it’s important for them to know that you value your sexuality. They should also be able to make appropriate referrals to specialized providers.
Sexuality can be a multifaceted and central part of everybody’s life as long as they want it to be. With a little work, older adults can maintain a life filled with sexual satisfaction and wellness.
For more information about sex therapy, sexuality education or sexual enhancement devices, contact The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, in Pawtucket, at 401-489-5513 or visit thecsph.org.
Kira Manser, MEd, LCSW, is the clinical director at The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health.