Editor’s Note: This guest post is from Terri Clark, MPH, CHES, Prevention Services Coordinator for ActionAIDS in Philadelphia. She can be reached at 267-940-5502, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Closeness, intimacy, and touch are lifelong needs that don’t get old, even when we do. We may be graying but our libidos and desires are still flickering, as our sexuality evolves and changes over our lifecycle. It is simply not true that when we are lighting dozens of candles on our birthday cake that we lose interest in sex or that our lives as sexual beings are over.
There are many facets of senior sex and sexuality. Although certainly sex is part of our sexuality, one can think of sex as what happens below the waist and in between the legs (behaviors) vs. sexuality, which includes everything about ourselves as human beings—our gender identity and expression, our need for touch/intimacy, our thoughts, feelings, and values—or what is happens above the waist in our heads and our hearts.
Indeed it is important to address our sex behaviors and talking about risk reduction messages such as using condoms, not forgetting the lube, body positioning, playing with sex toys, etc., is imperative to STI/HIV prevention (age is not a protective factor). Not to be overlooked is information about how our aging bodies physically change (weaker and/or shorter erections, drying vaginas, lower libidos, sagging boobs and bellies). However, in talking to hundreds of diverse aging folks about “sexuality and aging”, what I find they want to often talk about is intimacy and our need for tenderness and touch. So I will focus on that.
Indeed, the need for intimacy is ageless. We never outgrow our need for affection, emotional closeness and intimacy, sometimes referred to as “skin hunger”. Aging changes our perspectives on sex and sexuality, and often we can take the pressure off by putting aside our old ideas of what sex “should be”, focusing instead on the importance of tenderness and contact. And, when we do have sex, those encounters can be less “performance oriented”. As we age our desire for sex may diminish, but our need for caring, comforting, and intimate touch is as strong as ever. Even if you (or your partner) are ill or have physical disabilities, you can engage in intimate acts and benefit from closeness with another person.
Old and grey is not the same as old and lonely. Older folks may enjoy intimacy through couples relationships as well as friendships. Some couples/singles may have a higher degree of compatibility and mutual understanding. Other factors that may contribute to intimacy include emotional fidelity, sexual flexibility, and flexibility about sex roles. What I mean here is the “letting go” of messages we may have received growing up about “what it means to be a man” or “good girls don’t…. or good girls should…” Freedom from gender stereotyping contributes to more equitable relationships and responsibilities and pleasure. Intimacy for older folks can mean companionship, affection and enduring tenderness and concern. This goes for everyone; folks who identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender.
For some LGBT people romance and intimacy can begin at 60 (or beyond). Many older gay folks were closeted or married for much of their lives. Some waited until their family was grown, after divorce, or the death of their spouse before coming out. For them, expressing intimacy in a long-awaited relationship is alive and well.
As you find yourself embracing your older sexual identity, you can:
*Communicate – share what makes you feel good with your partner(s). Take time to understand and share the aging changes you are facing.
*Slow down—you and your partner(s) may need to spend more time touching. Sexual arousal takes longer and requires more manual stimulation; speaking of which, don’t underestimate masturbation and/or using sex toys – it can be extremely satisfying.
*Use your sensory skill – take time to explore in great detail all the tactile, visual, auditory, and even olfactory aspects of being intimate;
*Play with the mood – take time to set the stage for a special experience – experiment with lighting, music, candles, oils, perfumes, and incense. Try a new place.
Reap the benefits of experience. The independence and self-confidence that comes with age can be very attractive to your partner or potential partners. No matter your gender, you may feel better about your body at 72 than you did at 22. And it is likely that you now know more about yourself and what makes you excited and happy. If you can accept aging as natural and hold your head up high, you’ll not only feel better, you’ll also be more attractive to others. Confidence and honesty can be sexy and appealing.
Finally, sexuality involves who we are and who we love. Although we are making progress to confront the ageism that relates to sexual expression and older adults, all too frequently we imagine that sexuality, including intimacy and touch, are the last thing on the minds of older adults facing the myriad of age-related issues. The reality is sexuality might be among the more important things to keep people engaged, passionate, and healthy as they live out the later years of their lives. Many of us have work to do to counter society’s notions about older people and that fact that sexuality is part of us from the womb to the tomb.