Feature Archive

Sex in the Senior Years

Frisky Over 50

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Jan. 7, 2002 -- An older gentleman recently posed this question to Walter M. Bortz II, MD, a doctor and author who specializes in aging issues.

I am a healthy, stable, relatively well-off, 74-year-old man whose wife of 46 years died five months ago. Our years together were special, and our devotion to one another never wavered. I miss her greatly, but I now start to wonder whether memories are all I have left in life, or is there a chance that an ember might spark again?

I confess that I miss the thrills and pleasures of sharing sexual experiences. This surprises me, and, frankly, I've never even considered what I would do if my wife were gone. Now I am ill-prepared and don't know how to begin thinking about these issues. Should I relax and be content with the memories, or can I dare to think that a reprise of my earlier life is possible?

Bortz's response may surprise you:

"You are not alone in not knowing how to frame your feelings about sexuality and relationships late in life. There has been almost nothing written about it in the scientific literature. For example, a few years ago, the University of Chicago conducted a major study that purports to be 'the definitive study of sex in America.' However, this 'definitive' study included no one over 50. The best survey of male sexuality is the Massachusetts Male Aging Study from the Mount Auburn Hospital in Boston -- but no one older than 70 is included.

"With this in mind, I made an effort, myself, not long ago to shed some light on these issues.

"Four years ago, I got together with a urologist and a gynecologist and put on a lecture series on aging and sexuality at the Palo Alto, Calif., Senior Center. I didn't know what to expect, but when I arrived, the place was packed, and -- unusually for the senior center -- most of the audience was male.

"True to my nature, I passed out a questionnaire to the 250 or so attendees, asking them about their sexual habits. We collected the results and published them in the Journal of Gerontology a few years ago. The title of the article is 'Aging and Sexuality: Usual and Successful.' We sought to differentiate between the average older person (whom we called 'usual') and those few, outstanding older people (whom we called 'successful') who seem to defy the laws of average.

"Two major conclusions came from this study. First, the older people, men and women alike, were more active in their sexual interest and participation than we had thought. This confirms the results of a survey done a few years ago in which grandchildren were asked how frequently their grandparents had sex. Their estimates turned out to be three times lower than what their grandparents told researchers was actually happening.

"The second conclusion of our survey was that despite their robust activity, there were still many problems -- for the men, the problems centered around erectile dysfunction. For the women, they involved largely social opportunity (that is, not enough fellas).

"Recognizing the large degree of male dissatisfaction, I next undertook a large survey of older men. It became another study in the Journal of Gerontology and was the largest study of its kind ever reported on the attitudes and practices of 1,100 men over the age of 70, some of them in their 90s.

"Here's one of our findings: The men displayed high interest and involvement in sexual activity, even into their 10th decade. This success seems to occur when three conditions prevail: first, good health; second, no medications; and third, an eager partner.

"To pursue this issue further, I gave a similar questionnaire to the members of the Fifty-Plus Fitness Association, a nationwide group in which my wife and I are very involved. Our more than 2,000 members are bonded by their commitment to an active lifestyle. And their responses to the questionnaire were even more indicative of active late-life sexuality. Moreover, it appears that the fitter an older person remains, the more vigorous his or her sex life will be. That's probably no surprise, if you stop to think about it. These results were published in the Western Journal of Medicine.

"So, I have made myself an expert on aging and sexuality simply by taking the time and effort to look at a topic that was hidden. Late-life sexuality has been a taboo, even something considered inappropriate. Where did that idea come from?

"And recognize, too, that all of my results were recorded before the Viagra era started. It is my firm conviction that this drug will further revolutionize and sanction the idea of late-life sex. It is not something reserved for the young. Say that over and over. Sex is a major quality-of-life issue for people of all ages, so it is important to bring it out into the open.

"I fully acknowledge that most of my recent work is focused on men. I just lack the competence and sensitivity to know how to frame questions for women. For anyone interested in this topic, I would recommend the chapter on intimacy in Betty Friedan's book, The Fountain of Age (Touchstone Books, for about $15). It is forthright and challenging and again asks us to rethink our old attitudes.

"So, with this as background, I encourage you to think beyond the present, and seek again the possibility of developing a long-term relationship. You still have many years of life out there ahead of you. There is no reason why they shouldn't be full of the elements that have been important to you until now."

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