If you Googled “elderly sex” recently—in Connecticut, at least—up popped an August news story about the arrest of six seniors in connection with group sex in a Fairfield nature preserve. The people ranged in age from 62 to 85, though charges against two were dropped.
Morning radio had a field day. When it comes to sex and the senior set, those jokes write themselves.
And that’s unfortunate. Researchers say sex remains an important part of life, including for seniors. A recent study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior said that declining sexual activity among the elderly may be an indicator of poor health outcomes that include serious heart problems, and even cancer.
Yet sexual intimacy among seniors remains an under-studied part of medicine. A few researchers have been keeping up. AARP has, as well, but doctors may even ignore it.
The rest of us just may have to get over our squeamishness. As the baby boomers march into their 70s and 80s, that gap in research may become critical. By 2035, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, people older than 65 will outnumber children in the U.S. That’s 78 million seniors compared to 76.7 million children. More than a third of Connecticut residents are older than 50, and that number keeps rising. Using Census Bureau statistics, Newsweek magazine last year said Connecticut is roughly in the middle for how fast the state is aging. (Utah is aging slowest, while Vermont is aging fastest, according to the report.) According to the National Center for Assisted Living, Connecticut has 60 assisted-living communities that serve an average of 25 people. Count on that number rising, as well.
Christina Barmon, assistant professor of sociology at Central Connecticut State University and co-chair of the school’s gerontology minor, said research in the field is growing—in part because it has to. The boomers may not have it any other way—probably.
“I think the boomers are a really political active generation,” Barmon said. “They will demand better food, more privacy—but then, maybe they won’t be as demanding. We all have ageism as a big part of our culture.”
That bias toward believing in a sexless old age includes people who play the most critical role in elder health: physicians. Research shows, Barmon said, that doctors don’t tend to talk to older people about sex because their assumption is that older patients aren’t sexually active anyway. One study said that nearly 64% of doctors did not discuss sexuality in examinations of older patients with chronic pain.
In fact, doctors are ignoring glaring evidence of sexually active seniors, including skyrocketing infection rates for sexually transmitted diseases among people age 45 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.
Barmon and others say older adults tend to remain sexually active, though they may have sex less frequently than younger people. To maintain an active sex life, elders face challenges that include poor health, a lack of privacy, and a lack of available partners (particularly for women, who live, on average, five years longer than men in the U.S.).
Barmon’s research shows that adults in assisted living facilities must overcome even more barriers, including (and this is a big one) staff who may not support fraternization among residents. Those attitudes may run counter to the stated mission of assisted-living facilities that would give their residents autonomy (and privacy). Those attitudes will need to change, Barmon said.
“I think the main thing is that it can be important for health and well-being,” Barmon said. “It’s an important part of your life.”
Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to health reporting. (c-hit.org)